Cisco On UCS Invicta: The Target Is Our Compute Competitors, Not Our Storage Partners

Five years ago, Cisco Systems shook up the server market with the release of its Unified Computing System converged infrastructure offering. Now, the networking giant says it's set to do it again, quietly scoring customer wins with its next-generation UCS Invicta appliance and feeling confident it can overtake Hewlett-Packard to become the No. 1 blade server vendor worldwide.

"On average, over the last few quarters, we have been consistently adding about 1,000 new customers a month to our UCS install base," said Paul Perez, vice president and chief technology officer of Cisco's Data Center Technology Group. "It became pretty clear that [customers] were seeing too high a price and too much complexity as they tried to address new computational environments with existing storage infrastructure, and they were asking us what our plans were to create a better environment."

That plan, it turns out, came to light in January, when Cisco unveiled its UCS Invicta Solid-State Systems, a new version of UCS that leverages Invicta flash memory -- a technology Cisco gained through its $415 million acquisition of Whiptail last year -- to increase the performance of UCS blade servers, the converged infrastructure built around them, and the data-intensive applications, such as those used for big data analytics, that run on UCS.

Cisco is betting big on Invicta to help it nab more share of the fast-growing converged infrastructure market. Research firm IDC estimates that total worldwide spending on converged infrastructure -- or systems that tie together server, storage, networking and virtualization into a single integrated solution -- will hit $17.8 billion in 2016, up from $4.6 billion in 2012.

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But despite the market buzz, the launch of Cisco UCS Invicta was a quiet one. There was no formal press release announcing the launch, and the product didn't come close to garnering the same attention Cisco executives gave to other new offerings, such as Cisco InterCloud or ACI, at Cisco Partner Summit or Cisco Live.

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Some partners speculated that Cisco didn't roll out the red carpet for UCS Invicta the same way it did for other new products to downplay the fact that Invicta could compete with similar offerings from Cisco storage partners such as NetApp or EMC, which traditionally have provided the storage functionality for UCS.

Cisco partners also told CRN the UCS Invicta appliance could cause more friction in the VCE joint venture with Cisco and EMC. Ties between the two companies already were strained when VMware, a subsidiary of EMC, plunked down $1.2 billion to acquire software-defined networking startup and Cisco competitor Nicira in 2012. The rift only widened, partners said, with Cisco's acquisition of Whiptail.

"We've already sold [UCS Invicta]," said one Cisco partner, who asked not to be named. "But if you go onto Cisco's website and read about Invicta, it's going to be a very vague message. And one of the reasons they are probably doing that is because they have a big stake in VCE."

According to Perez, however, Cisco has been open with its storage partners about its plans for Invicta and isn't looking to compete head-on with either VCE Vblock or NetApp FlexPod.

"We were in deep conversations -- very, very deep conversations -- with all of our storage partners right after that [Whiptail] acquisition," Perez told CRN. "Those conversations went on for months, and those conversations were very open and very transparent about everything we were intending to do."

Perez said there was little fanfare over the UCS Invicta launch because Cisco chose to highlight other new offerings, such as InterCloud and ACI, at events such as Cisco Live.

"We decided, 'Hey, we are just going to go to the market, start selling the product, build some successes and maybe the public messaging around Invicta will be the success we have accumulated, not necessarily what we are about to do,'" he said.

NEXT: Perez: We Will Beat HP In Global Blade Server Market


Perez said Cisco has sold 50 UCS Invicta systems since they started shipping in March. Customers have been a mix of existing UCS install base and new to UCS, he said.

"Some of those customers had considered UCS in the past and passed," Perez said. "But with UCS and Invicta they said 'yes.' So it validated our architectural approach."

He said out of those 50 sales, Invicta is "rarely, if at all," being used as the primary storage technology within UCS. Instead, Perez said, it's being used how Cisco intended it to be: as a UCS performance feature, speeding up data-intensive workloads, such as big data analytics, along with batch processing, data loads and online transaction processing taking place on UCS.

To that end, Perez said UCS Invicta is more of a shot across the bow at traditional Cisco compute competitors, such as Dell or HP, than it is at EMC, NetApp or VCE.

"At the end of the day, I made it very clear to our storage partners that, yes, there will be some overlap and as a result of that there might be some competition," Perez said. "But ultimately, my crosshairs are at my compute competitors, not my storage partners."

Perez declined to give specific benchmarks but said Cisco's UCS Invicta appliance has a "much higher write performance" than competing offerings, such as HP's converged infrastructure systems using the HP 3Par all-flash array or Dell's converged infrastructure using its Compellent flash storage.

"It's not something that’s built from the ground up to maximize solid-state performance," Perez said of HP 3Par and Dell Compellent. "And, in the case of those types of traditional arrays, what ends up happening is that it's easy to accelerate reads or read performance with flash, but it’s a lot harder to accelerate write performance with flash. And that’s one of the key things that UCS Invicta solves."

Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research, said one of the differentiators for Cisco UCS was that it was built from the ground up to be a converged stack, unlike some of the competitive offerings on the market.

"I think the difference is that Cisco actually built UCS to be a converged system. But when I look at what HP and others are doing, I think they took more traditional products and then had to figure out how to converge them," Kerravala said. "I think it's fair to say that those products weren't really designed or optimized to work in a converged system only."

Dell storage director Bob Fine responded with statement to CRN.

" The fastest place to put the hottest data is in the server. Dell offers Fluid Cache for SAN to accelerate writes as well as reads on the server side, scaling economically to millions of IOPS," Fine wrote. "Beyond that super-hot data, the primary barrier toward accelerating more data to flash speeds is putting just the right data onto affordable flash. Dell offers intelligent data placement to optimize different SSD types along with HDD."

HP did not respond to CRN's request for comment by press time.

Perez, who before joining Cisco in 2011 spent 27 years at HP, most recently as vice president and chief technologist of HP’s Industry Standard Servers and Software, also said UCS Invicta beats out the competition in terms of scale.

"When we released a single node appliance initially in March, we released a scaling system where the initial configuration is two control nodes and six data nodes -- just about 144 Terabytes -- and that’s just the beginning," he said. "We can scale to much higher levels than that. And it's not only the fact that we can scale. It’s the fact that we have a no trade-off, no-compromise architecture that is very easy to adapt to optimize for IOPS in transactional environments, for bandwidth in throughput environments or for capacity."

It's the enhancements UCS gains through Invicita -- and the fact that Cisco has added roughly 1,000 new UCS customers to its install base over the past few months -- that makes Perez so confident Cisco can eclipse HP to become the No. 1 blade server vendor worldwide.

Cisco inched closer to achieving that goal earlier this month when it surpassed HP to become the No. 1 x86 blade server vendor in North America by revenue, according to first-quarter data from research firm IDC. HP, however, maintained its No. 1 spot in North America in terms of units shipped.

"It will take a little longer to get to No. 1 worldwide," Perez told CRN. "But I have been in this industry 30 years. I didn’t spend all that time to finish second or third."

The market for blade servers -- which primarily are used in enterprises’ virtualized environments or converged infrastructures such as UCS -- grew 2.3 percent year over year in the first quarter of 2014, according to IDC. Cisco in the first quarter maintained its runner-up position in the worldwide blade server market with 24.4 percent, which was up from the 20.5 percent share Cisco had in the fourth quarter of 2013. HP, meanwhile, accounted for 43.7 percent of the global market in the first quarter.

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UCS was introduced in 2009 much to the skepticism of Cisco competitors, which questioned how the networking giant could gain a foothold in the server market so late in the game. But today, UCS has flourished into a $2 billion-plus business and could easily be considered one of the most successful products in Cisco's 30-year history.

"Frankly, I have felt for a long time that the rest of the server industry should almost be embarrassed that they let a relative newcomer come in and build a product like [UCS] and to take the share out from under them," Kerravala said.

In a conference call with analysts discussing Cisco's third-quarter earnings results last month, Cisco CEO John Chambers said UCS has gained market share in each of the 17 consecutive quarters since its launch. Revenue for Cisco's data center business, which houses UCS, was up 29 percent year over year.

Regardless of what it means for the VCE alliance or Cisco's storage vendor partnerships, solution providers say Invicta will only ensure future UCS wins.

An executive at one Cisco partner already selling UCS Invicta, who asked to remain anonymous, said the fact that Cisco's initial messaging around Invicta is so focused on application performance is going to be a big differentiator in the market.

"I think they are being brilliant, and Chambers needs to be applauded here," the solution provider told CRN. "Cisco is selling to the applications delivery people. They are going to go and talk to the application people rather than the IT people, and that's where they are going to win. That's the future."

Kent MacDonald, vice president of converged infrastructure at Long View Systems, a Cisco Gold partner based in Calgary, also applauded Cisco's early positioning of Invicta, especially given customers' increasing demand for application performance acceleration.

"I think constant innovation is important and, out of the gate, Cisco had differentiation with the [UCS] service profile and building things from scratch versus leveraging an existing model or existing architecture," MacDonald said. "Transaction performance is also becoming more and more important as you look at the end-user experience, be it processing data, be it a point-of-sale transaction or be it VDI. I think [UCS Invicta] is aligning with our customer demands of being that instant-on society."

Perez, it seems, would agree.

"I think we are in this market to stay," he told CRN. "I think we are in this market to win."

This article originally appeared as an exclusive on the CRN Tech News App for iOS and Windows 8.