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Cisco debuts Unified Computing System

Posted: 18 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:UCS Cisco? Unified System Computing? business server? data center?

Hungry for growth, Cisco Systems Inc. has jumped into the server business using advances in silicon, networking and virtualization to seek an edge over veterans such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) underscores key trends in data center design, but the company faces stiff competition in a complex and maturing market.

The news marks the second time this year that CEO John Chambers launched the network giant into a large market where it is a relative newcomer. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Cisco announced a media server and audio players for the digital home, leveraging its Linksys acquisition to drive the Cisco logo into a broader role in consumer electronics.

Now Chambers wants to see that logo get more space in data centers that are increasingly the host for tomorrow's applications in an emerging cloud computing era. By adding servers to its offerings in networking, the company aims for a broader play as a systems integrator at the level of IBM and HP.

"We address less than high single digits of the data center market today," Chambers said. "With this offering, we can talk about 25 percent or more of the data center market."

Big slice of data center market
The company estimated that its UCS can address a $20 billion slice of the overall $85 billion data center market. Cisco claims that UCS provides lower capital and operational costs, and is easier to manage than competing systems.

To date, IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems and others have focused on delivering server blades, large chassis that can house a number of servers along with networking and storage capabilities. Sun has even rolled out a shipping container with multiple racks of such systems and related gear as a large building block for increasingly massive data centers.

Cisco's UCS design follows the trend by including both network switches and as many as 320 server blades all managed as a single system. Under the hood, the company is using a handful of new and existing ASICs to differentiate its offering.

The UCS design collapses separate Fibre Channel storage and Ethernet networks into one 10Gbit/s Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) link using existing ASICs from Cisco's Nexus switch. The company claims that it helps reduce the amount of extra cards and cables the systems require.

In addition, Cisco has taken software technology called VN-Link it co-developed with virtualization specialist VMWare and embedded it in an ASIC. The resulting module lets virtual machines move automatically from one server to the next, retaining the details of how they are configured.

The two companies have submitted the VN-Link approach to the IEEE 802 group on Ethernet for consideration as a standard.

Separately, Cisco has found a way to extend the amount of memory supported on Intel's upcoming Nehalem server processors used in the Cisco servers. However, Cisco won't release details on how much it has increased the memory support or how it implemented the change until the Nehalem chips ship sometime in April.

"The memory density is a very big deal," said Brian Byun, VP of partners and solutions at VMware. "One of the most important factors for virtualization software is the amount of available memory," he added.

Finally, Cisco aims to replace separate networking, storage and server management tools with a central facility managed from an embedded control on its FCoE switch. The move allows users to quickly configure the individual servers that do not have to retain any information on their state.

The company hopes rivals such as IBM and HP will modify their management software suites to tap into some of the UCS features.

"What they are doing is valuable, but they have a lot to deliver on," said Joe Skorupa, VP of enterprise networking research at Gartner.

Compatibility issues
Gartner currently does not recommend users embrace FCoE or Cisco's VN-Link approach because standards for the technologies have not been completed yet. Instead, the group suggests using external I/O virtualization appliances such as the recently announced system from startup Virtensys.

"We are always concerned about vendors trying to get users to commit to a pre-standard technology where they might get locked in," Skorupa said.

HP agreed. Cisco's "vision is built on its new protocol, VNTag, which is not compatible with current networking equipmenteven Cisco's existing core switches," the company said in a press statement. By contrast, "HP's Virtual Connect software and ProCurve switches provide virtual I/O today and work with every network vendor's equipment, hypervisor and management [software] currently available," it said.

On the systems management front, "Cisco's track record is not good," said Skorupa. "They have bought several companies in this space, but failed to integrate all the pieces. One customer said it's easier to manage a multivendor network than a pure Cisco network," he said.

HP characterized the Cisco management approach as "not unification [so much as] a change of control. Checking in with the network administrator every time a change needs to be made could have disastrous consequences," HP said.

In a separate position piece on the news, Gartner said Cisco's UCS system lacks adequate bandwidth for Fibre Channel, still used by many large data centers to link to storage networks. In addition, the Cisco approach to lowering data center management costs "are not persuasive enough to displace incumbent vendors such as HP," it said.

Today, virtualization software providers "control the account" for data center business, the article said. In this environment, Cisco will be forced to compete with IBM and HP on price, it added.

Cisco formed its UCS initiative three years ago, Chambers said. It emerged from conversations about Nuova Systems, a Cisco-backed startup that pioneered FCoE.

Mario Mazzola led the development of UCS. Mazzola is a Cisco veteran who helped the company to get into FCoE last year and storage networking products in 2002 with its Andiamo unit.

Cisco has about 10 beta systems deployed with end users including the IT departments at Cisco and Intel. Pat Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's business systems group, told Chambers that Intel's IT department is "putting [UCS] through its paces, and so far you are doing pretty well."

- Rick Merritt
EE Times





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