Cisco Bets Big On Virtualization, Blade Servers

After months of speculation, Cisco on Monday officially staked its claim to the blade server market, unveiling a server offering as part of its Unified Computing System, an architecture the San Jose, Calif.-based networking giant said will increase the use of virtualization in data centers.

But Cisco was quick to note that the Unified Computing System goes well beyond a typical blade server play. Instead, Cisco detailed a holistic approach and open eco-system to tie together servers, storage, networking and virtualization.

"This is the future of the data center," said Cisco CEO John Chambers, in an event unveiling the Unified Computing System on Monday. "It will evolve into clouds and change business models forever."

The Cisco Unified Computing System is a solution set that comprises a host of new Cisco products, along with a flurry of contributions from dozens of technology partners.

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Chambers said the Unified Computing System will "bring together the compute power, the storage access and the networking capabilities" of the next-generation data center and facilitate Cisco's vision of accessing information from any device, any network, any location at any time.

The new architecture, which Cisco called a "wire once" unified fabric, can ultimately reduce IT infrastructure costs and complexity, while reducing capital expenditures by up to 20 percent and operational expenses by up to 30 percent compared to legacy data center systems, said Jackie Ross, vice president of Cisco's server and virtualization business unit.

The system will enable the building of next-generation data centers optimized for virtualized resources, Cisco said. As a single system, it is designed to ease data center management while also supporting a host of applications and services from leading partner vendors like BMC, EMC, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat and VMware.

Chambers said the system can provision applications "at the drop of a hat." And Ross added that all told the system can support more than 300 servers and thousands of virtual machines. It can also reduce the number of data center resources, like servers, switches, adapters and cables by up to 50 percent, which ultimately lowers power and cooling costs.

The Unified Computing System includes a host of new Cisco products, foremost two types of Cisco UCS B-Series Blade Servers, which are based on the upcoming Intel Nehalem processor. While specific details of the pending blade servers won't be released for a few weeks, Cisco said the servers adapt to new application demands, scale energy use and offer virtualization capabilities. Additional details are being held close to the vest until Intel's official Nehalem launch at the end of March.

Cisco said each blade server uses network adapters for access to the unified fabric and Cisco's "memory-expansion" technology can increase the memory footprint to boost performance and capacity for virtualization and large data set workloads. Cisco also unveiled the UCS 5100 Series Blade Server Chassis, which can support up to eight blade servers and up to two of Cisco's new fabric extenders in a 6RU enclosure without the need for additional management modules.

Along with releasing a blade server play, Cisco unveiled UCS 6100 Series Fabric Interconnects, a family of line-rate, low-latency lossless 10 Gbps Cisco Data Center Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet interconnect switches. The switches consolidate I/O within the system. The switches come in 20-port 1RU and 40-port 2RU version and accommodate expansion modules for Fibre Channel and/or 10 Gig E connectivity.

Other components of the Unified Computing System include Cisco UCS 2100 Series Fabric Extenders, which bring unified fabric into the blade-server chassis for up to 10 Gbps connections each between blades and the fabric interconnect, which can ease diagnostics, cabling and management and UCS Network Adapters, which are three types of adapters offered in a mezzanine-card format. The adapters are optimized for virtualization, compatibility with existing driver stacks, or efficient, high performance Ethernet.

Lastly, tying the entire system together, Cisco will release the Cisco UCS Manager, a centralized management console for the Unified Computing System. The UCS Manager is the embedded software that unifies the various components into a seamless, cohesive system. The UCS Manger offers a graphical user interface, a command line interface and an application programming interface to manage all Unified Communication System components and configurations.

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In addition to the new gear, Cisco will also launch an Authorized Technology Partner Program (ATP) around Unified Computing. Currently, Cisco said it has 250 data center specialized partners, 75 percent of which focus heavily on virtualization, servers and storage, said John Growdon, director of go to market for Cisco worldwide channels. Growdon said roughly 30 to 50 of those partners will be brought into the ATP in its initial launch, with the program opening to more partners soon.

Rob Lloyd, executive vice president designate of worldwide operations for Cisco, said more details of the Unified Computing Systems configurations and solutions will emerge over the coming weeks. Exact availability dates and pricing models were not released on Monday.

"You can't think of this as a blade or a network ... it's a system," Lloyd said, adding the Unified Computing System will be shipped and configured as a single system, not as stand-alone products.

Mario Mazzola, senior vice president of Cisco's server access and virtualization business unit, agreed.

"We don't look at this announcement as a specific product, like a blade server," he said. "We don't think in terms of chassis. We think in terms of global reach."

Unified computing is the third phase in Cisco's five-phased approach to the data center, which started with the first phase of data center networking nearly a decade ago and evolved into the second phase of a unified fabric last year. The fourth and fifth phases will focus on cloud computing, namely private clouds and inter clouds, respectively, Chambers said.

And while the Unified Computing System is central to Cisco's vision for next-generation virtualized data centers, Cisco on Monday also joined forces with what Chambers called a "world class ecosystem" of technology partners to fulfill that vision. Partners like Accenture, BMC Software, EMC, Intel, Microsoft, NetApp, Red Hat, VMware and a host of others will contribute as UCS evolves.

Technology partners, like VMware, hope the Unified Computing strategy and their contributions facilitate and accelerate virtualizations, increasing typical virtualization utilization beyond the current level of about 30 percent.

"Get people off the dime and accelerate the trend to large-scale virtualization," said VMware CEO Paul Maritz. "There will no longer be any reason you can't take any load in the data center or in the cloud and give it the benefit of virtualization."

Zeki Yasar, enterprise consultant at ePlus, a Herndon, Va.-based solution provider, said Cisco is providing some very interesting technology that, rather than addressing server technology as a whole, instead addresses a hole in how virtual technology is brought into a unified environment.

"A lot of people who are doing virtualization are not bringing it into their production environments because of latency and overhead issues," Yasar said. "Virtualization has addressed some core applications, but not things like databases."

Yasar, who has been quietly working with Cisco's Unified Computing System for some time, said Cisco is bringing hardware-assisted virtualization to the unified computing stack.

"It's expanding virtualization into not only the processors, but also into the entire Cisco platform," he said. "Now enterprise services like databases that don't fly in a virtual environment because of performance issues now can do so. So people who are not deploying virtual infrastructures because they couldn't get the full ability to do all the software services can do it now."

Keith Norbie, director of the storage division of Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider and partner to both Cisco and VMware, said that, while his company sells a lot of Cisco products, it sees a number of challenges ahead as Cisco moves into a new business.

"The biggest challenge for Cisco is, what's their credibility in this space?" Norbie said. "Who's going to be the first to sell a Cisco server? If it's on the VMware HCL (hardware compatibility list), it might work."

Cisco, by reaching beyond the natural evolution of its core business, does run the risk of overreaching while protecting its existing business from competitors eager to see it fall, Norbie said.

For instance, Norbie said, even as Cisco is reaching into the server market, companies like Juniper Networks are pecking away at its networking market, F5 at its application delivery networking market, Riverbed at WAN optimization, and Checkpoint at firewalls.

Norbie also said Cisco, by reaching too far outside its core business, risks an identity crisis. "It's like Michael Jordon playing baseball," he said, referring to Jordan's temporary retirement from professional basketball to play minor league baseball in the mid-1990s.

Joseph F. Kovar contributed to this story.