Modular Servers, UCS Mini And More: Cisco Makes Biggest Refresh To UCS Line In Years

Cisco's New M-Series modular servers

Cisco significantly expanded its Unified Computing System (UCS) converged infrastructure portfolio Thursday, in a move the networking giant dubbed the biggest UCS refresh since the launch of the product in 2009.

At the forefront of the new UCS family is Cisco's M-Series of modular servers -- a completely new product line for the San Jose, Calif.-based company -- aimed at the large enterprise and cloud service provider markets.

Cisco also took the wraps off UCS Mini, a new offering that bundles servers, storage and networking into a single solution -- much like the traditional UCS -- but in a smaller form factor. First reported on by CRN last month, the UCS Mini uses a lower-cost connectivity solution that limits users to 15 servers. It also allows Cisco, for the first time, to target branch or remote offices and the mid-market with UCS.

[Related: Cisco Prepping 'Mini-UCS' Servers To Go Low Where UCS Can't: Sources]

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In addition, Cisco refreshed its line of B-Series blade servers and C-Series rack mount servers. Specifications of the new servers are expected to be released next week when Intel unveils its latest Grantley series of server processors.

The new Cisco M-Series features a Cisco 2U chassis that fits up to eight compute modules, each of which consists of two independent Intel Xeon E3 servers, said Todd Brannon, UCS marketing director at Cisco. Rather than including storage and networking on each server, the eight modules share four SSDs and dual 40-Gbit Ethernet connectivity, Brannon told CRN.

"To upgrade the server, just replace the cartridge," he said. "There’s no need to replace the shared resources."

The M-Series, according to Cisco, is a redefinition of server architectures that "leapfrogs" anything in the market today and brings everything Cisco does from a management and policy perspective to the density space.

"This really kind of fundamentally breaks apart what a server is and recombines it in a better way for scale-out computing," Brannon said.

Brannon said the M-Series is different from the Moonshot modular servers from Cisco rival Hewlett-Packard.

"We're not competing with Moonshot," he said. "Moonshot is really aimed at the hyperscale customers with large engineering organizations who can create software stacks. We're targeting customers who do not have their own software, but who are looking to deploy infrastructures quickly. We're not looking at those serving rarified-air markets."

NEXT: Cisco UCS M-series And The Channel

The new Cisco UCS M-Series servers takes advantage of one of Cisco's key technologies, its VIC (Virtual Interface Card), said Mike Davis, vice president of technology at Broadleaf Services, a Billerica, Mass.-based solution provider and Cisco partner.

The VIC allows customers to actually specify the connectivity, such as two 10-Gbit or eight 1-Gbit connections, at the time the server is configured, Davis told CRN. "That's a key differentiator with HP or IBM," he said

The M-Series could also result in huge cost savings over the current B-Series solution, Davis said.

When the first generation of UCS was released, it could be configured with 16 servers in 6U of rack space, but the M-Series now puts 16 servers in 2U, which significantly cuts the cooling costs and footprint for modern data centers, he said.

Furthermore, a lot of applications charge by the socket, but with the upcoming Grantley processors Grantley processors with up to 18 cores per socket, customers could see a drop in software license costs, Davis said.

"If a server comes with two 8-core processors, but now has a single 18-core processor, that's big," he said. "In this case, the M-Series can reduce software costs by 50 percent, and data center costs by 66 percent because of footprint and cooling," he said.

Jerry McIntosh, senior vice president of advanced technology sales at ePlus, a Herndon, Va.-based solution provider and Cisco Gold partner, said the major advantage of Cisco's M-Series is that it allows customers to scale out applications without the "headache" or cost of having to invest in additional infrastructure.

"It gives customers the flexibility to scale out applications with a more efficient infrastructure approach," McIntosh told CRN. "It means they've got less network and cabling headaches to deal with inside the data center in order to scale out. Cisco has built strong synergies into the way the platform leverages their existing fabric within the data center."

A modular system with single-socket servers like the new Cisco UCS M-Series sounds like the kind of cloud-scale offering companies like Facebook and Google use, said John Woodall, vice president of engineering at Integrated Archive Systems, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based solution provider and Cisco channel partner.

"This could be an avenue for Cisco to get into a market that HP and Dell have been playing in," Woodall told CRN.

The 40-Gbps uplink in the M-Series is a lot of bandwidth, but would help the dense server solution work well with the Cisco Nexus 9000 switches where 40-Gbps connectivity is not much of a price upgrade, Woodall said.

"Such a solution would work well with Cisco UCS Director, based on the old Cloupia technology it acquired, and with Cisco ACI [Application Centric Infrastructure], for building clouds," he said.

NEXT: The New UCS Mini

Cisco also officially introduced its UCS Mini servers, which feature a new server interconnect technology aimed at making it easier to offer smaller configurations than in the past.

The UCS Mini features the current B-Series blade chasses and blades, but adds the Cisco UCS 6324 Fabric Interconnect, a small device that plugs into the back of the chassis. Cisco UCS 6324 provides network connectivity for up to eight Cisco UCS blade servers and seven direct-connect rack servers, giving it a total domain of up to 15 Cisco servers.

This differs from Cisco's current UCS platform, which uses a 4-port or 8-port Cisco UCS 2200 series Fabric Extender, or "FEX" in Cisco speak, to provide blade servers in the 5100-series blade chassis with 10-Gbit Ethernet connectivity to the UCS 6100 or UCS 6200 series Fabric Interconnects.

Cisco expects its partners to deploy UCS Mini in remote or branch offices, allowing customers to extend compute capabilities beyond their core data centers and out to the edge of their networks.

Brannon said these kinds of "distributed" computing environments are key to enabling the Internet of Things, a trend that demands more data be processed by end devices, such as sensors, that sit at the edge of network, rather than being sent to a central data center.

"The UCS Mini is where we have taken our UCS system and optimized it for that edge-scale environment," Brannon told CRN. "Mini basically takes all the features and functionality that we have provided to enterprise customers for their data center core, and optimized it for the remote environment."

Given its compact form factor and lower price point, the UCS Mini is also being targeted at mid-market organizations with smaller IT footprints. Brannon said UCS Mini will sell starting at under $20,000. It is designed to scale up to 15 servers, while the legacy UCS can scale to thousands.

"This is particularly critical for our partners to expand their businesses into that market segment in a more competitive way with UCS," Brannon said.

ePlus' McIntosh said UCS Mini will allow ePlus to do just that: target new market segments -- namely, the mid-market and branch offices -- that it couldn't before with the traditional UCS offering.

"There is a lot of opportunity out there to push compute, network and storage out toward the edge IP network, where there is data that needs to be locally processed at the point of service," McIntosh said, noting manufacturing and retail environments as an example. "In the mid-market, that package of compute, networking and storage in a miniature form factor presents opportunities to sell into accounts where perhaps we haven't sold a lot of Cisco before."

The launch of the M-Series modular servers and the UCS Mini comes after a year of solid growth for Cisco's UCS business as a whole. Cisco said in August its data center business in the fourth quarter was up 30 percent year-over-year. Cisco said this week that UCS, since its inception in 2009, has flourished into a $3 billion business.

That growth has helped Cisco emerge as one of the fastest-growing server vendors in the industry. IDC reported last month that Cisco's server revenue soared more than 35 percent in the second quarter. The analyst firm also reported in June that Cisco eclipsed rival Hewlett-Packard to become the No. 1 x86 blade server vendor in North America by revenue. The move knocked HP down to the No. 2 spot for the first time since 2006.

NEXT: Other Server Updates From Cisco

The debut of UCS Mini also comes on the heels of Cisco inking a deal with SimpliVity, one of the most visible startups in the red-hot hyper-converged infrastructure space, to integrate SimpliVity's OmniStack software with Cisco UCS hardware as an alternative to the current hardware on which SimpliVity's appliances are built. It's a move that will allow the SimpliVity hyper-converged infrastructure appliances to better integrate into Cisco server environments.

Lastly, Cisco introduced Thursday the fourth generation of its B-Series blade servers, including the new UCS B200 M4, along with its new C220 M4 and C240 M4 rack servers. Cisco also rolled out UCS Director Express for Big Data, a new version of its UCS management platform that's designed specifically for big data applications.

John Growdon, senior director of data center sales, worldwide channels at Cisco, said Cisco partners already certified to sell UCS will not be required to take any additional training to sell UCS Mini or the new M-Series or B-Series products.

"For our channel partners already specialized in this, they can run with it immediately," Growdon said.

At its Global Partner Summit in March, Cisco said it has 3,800 partners selling UCS and 2,000 partners holding a UCS specialization, representing a 25 percent increase over last year.