Cisco's new server has the potential to recast both the data storage and server virtualization markets.
Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) says its new Unified Computing System isn't limited to virtual server environments, but it certainly seems designed for them.
Loaded with memory and 10Gb interconnects, Cisco's UCS packs in four times as many virtual machines as traditional servers and is designed to ease virtual I/O constraints. Cisco released more details about the system today, a month after it was first unveiled.
EMC (NYSE: EMC) and NetApp (NASDAQ: NTAP) have been tapped as data storage partners for the new offering, which is also built around EMC subsidiary VMware's (NYSE: VMW) virtualization technology. Cisco says it's working with other virtualization vendors too, including Citrix (NASDAQ: CTXS) and Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT).
EMC says its new Symmetrix V-Max is designed to accomplish with storage what Cisco and VMware have accomplished with servers: to take many resources and have them appear and operate as one. NetApp, meanwhile, announced its own storage partnership with Cisco today.
Emulex (NYSE: ELX) and QLogic (NASDAQ: QLGC) are providing converged network adapters (CNAs) for the offering.
Cisco claims its Data Center Ethernet and FCoE-based interconnects and fabric extenders can save users a bundle on Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches and management software.
Built for Speed
But the new server's biggest potential seems to be to overcome the integration and I/O constraints that come from packing virtual machines into a traditional server, storage and network environment. Cisco's new memory expansion and hypervisor bypass technology, for example, promise to maximize performance for virtualization and large-dataset workloads.
James Staten, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, said he believes Cisco will primarily use all that speed to optimize its UCS for virtualized workloads. "Customers will likely be Cisco customers with highly intensive data center needs who see the value of investing lots of money in a powerful, integrated platform," said Staten.
"The new blade center architecture has potential memory and I/O advantages, which are key in a large-scale virtualized environment," wrote Enterprise Storage Group analysts Mark Bowker, Steve Duplessie and Jon Oltsik in a summary of UCS. "But it will take hundreds of blades, thousands of virtual machines, and a resource-intensive environment for customers to fully see the value."
The ESG analysts noted that Cisco's support for triple the amount of blade memory compared to existing offerings will make the UCS an attractive platform for large environments.
"By sticking its big toe in the server water, Cisco gains some experience it can test the water with its customers and OEMs," said Greg Schultz, founder and senior analyst at the StorageIO Group. "But more importantly, it gives Cisco a means to prop up its emerging Data Center Ethernet, also known as Fiber Channel over Ethernet, story while the rest of the industry and surrounding ecosystem continues to evolve."
If nothing else, said Schultz, Cisco will provide a reference model for how IT customers can use Cisco and its solutions to optimize virtualized environments instead of relying on HP (NYSE: HPQ), IBM (NYSE: IBM) and other blade vendors.
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Regardless of what happens, Cisco will have to "demonstrate the value of a first-generation product and prove its effectiveness in a highly virtualized data center," said ESG's Bowker.
Cisco's Jackie Ross believes the company is more than up to the task.
"Our goal is to offer a complete data center solution optimized for virtualization, unified I/O, management and integration," said Ross, Cisco's vice president of marketing for server access and virtualization.
Ross said UCS isn't burdened by legacy design, although it is able to run virtualized Windows and Linux applications.
"At the same time, we have integrated the network side with the compute side, while reducing the numbers of layers of integration and the level of complexity between the two," she said.
"Instead of building a conventional server and then retrofitting it to do virtualization, Cisco has built a server optimized to do virtualization," said Bryan Doerr, CTO of Savvis, an IT provider and Cisco partner that has been testing UCS for a month.
Emphasizing that UCS is a lot more than a mere blade server strategy, Ross said UCS introduces a rich set of technical innovations: embedded system management; just-in-time provisioning with service profiles; a unified fabric; VN-Link virtualization support; state-of-the-art performance; and energy efficiency.
Ross said customers will experience I/O improvements from the unified fabric's ability to "wire once," eliminating the need for multiple sets of adapters, cables and switches. The system's fabric extenders eliminate blade server switches by passing all network traffic to interconnects, where the traffic can be processed and managed centrally.
Another I/O benefit of UCS comes from the platform's VN-Link virtualization support, which extends the network to the virtual machine, said Ross. This capability creates a consistent operational model, whether networks are connected to physical servers or virtual ones.
Ross explained that VN-Link virtualization enables all links to be centrally configured and managed without introducing any extra switching layers. Bottom-line: I/O configurations and network policies follow virtual machines.
"Now, I/O paths can be easily managed, as policy layers and functions tied to virtual machines can be moved automatically," agreed Doerr.
Critics Weigh In
Cisco's attempt to rewrite the future of unified computing has been met with predictable skepticism, even scorn from networking and server competitors.
One of the more penetrating criticisms came from Rick Becker, Dell's (NASDAQ: DELL) vice president of software and solutions.
"While Cisco is a leader in the networking space, the server market is a very different ballgame," Becker wrote in a blog. "CIOs aren't looking for proprietary, appliance-like products like UCS because they drive up TCO and create more complexity. This is where Cisco has missed the mark."
Ross countered that UCS is standards-based and that Cisco gear can coexist with gear from Dell, HP, IBM and others in the data center.
Whether Cisco can remake the unified computing space or not remains to be seen, but the company will likely have some effect on the virtualization and storage landscape, with its new architecture and the beginnings of what could become a tight relationship with VMware and EMC.
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