In-Depth

Cisco Plays Both Sides of the Virtual Coin

The Unified Computing System supports VMware and Hyper-V and aims to be a "Cloud in a Box" solution. But can Cisco transition from routers to servers?

It was code-named "California" and is expected to link computing, network, storage, access and virtualization capabilities together into one cohesive system. Now known as the Unified Computing System (UCS), the new platform from Cisco Systems Inc. has moved the company beyond pure-play networking into the server space with virtualization as the defining feature. And Cisco has lined up two big virtual fish for support -- Microsoft and VMware Inc.

"The Cisco Unified Computing System offers a clean-sheet approach to solve data center challenges by offering a single, holistic solution with integrated management and the critical support necessary for scaling virtualization," says Vernon Turner, senior vice president of Enterprise Infrastructure, Consumer and Telecom Research at IDC. "By increasing the performance and scale of virtualized environments, while at the same time improving the ability to control and manage virtual workloads, this solution has the potential to deliver the full benefits of virtualization across the data center to increase productivity and agility and reduce IT costs."

The system can come loaded with the Microsoft stack, including System Center, SQL Server and Hyper-V, or stacked with the VMware vSphere virtualization platform and vCenter management wares. Citrix Systems Inc. is even in on the action.

Architecturally Speaking
The UCS architecture is built on the promise of power and scalability. It's made to handle workloads much greater than the five to 10 virtual machines (VMs) per physical server normally seen on today's machines.

But Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf generally cautions his clients against an excess of VM density. "Too much virtual machine density puts virtual machine availability at risk when a server failure takes place," Wolf says.

While that may be true, greater efficiency and cost savings occur with greater VM density, which is a key draw of UCS. It's also why the major virtualization platform vendors like VMware, Citrix and Microsoft are partnering with Cisco to get their stacks on the hardware.

VMware got the most face time among those companies at the unveiling of UCS, but Microsoft has a lot to offer. In fact, it's pushing a soup-to-nuts suite of offerings that includes Windows Server 2008, System Center and SQL Server.

Microsoft in on the Game
Windows Server 2008 includes Hyper-V R2, Microsoft's base hypervisor. Hyper-V R2 includes important scalability upgrades like Live Migration, which moves running VMs off of one physical server to another with no downtime; quadrupled processor support, all the way up to 64 logical processors; and support for up to 384 concurrently running VMs.

Combined with the management capabilities of System Center -- including Virtual Machine Manager specifically for virtual environments, and a SQL back-end -- Microsoft hopes these components add up to a compelling reason to choose its stack over the competition.

Whatever virtualization solution is chosen, it'll be sitting on an impressive hunk of metal, at least according to initial specs. A family of fabric interconnects, the UCS 6100 series provides line-rate, low-latency 10 Gbps Ethernet and Fibre Channel (FC) over Ethernet switches that consolidate I/O within the system. Twenty-port and 40-port versions include expansion modules that provide FC or 10GigE connectivity. The blade server chassis, called the UCS 5100, accepts up to eight blade servers and up to two fabric extenders in a 6RU enclosure. The fabric extenders, called the UCS 2100 series, bring unified fabric into the chassis, providing up to four 10Gbps connections each between blade servers and the fabric interconnects.

The B-Series blade servers, built on Xeon processors, use network adapters for access to the unified fabric. Cisco points to the servers' memory-expansion technology to increase the memory footprint for the kind of performance that virtualization and heavy workloads require. The network adapters are provided as mezzanine cards -- three separate adapters that are optimized for virtualization, compatibility with existing driver stacks and high-performance Ethernet.

Alternatively, a virtualization-optimized network adapter option uses Single Root I/O Virtualization (SR-IOV), a standard for allowing a physical network adapter to present multiple virtual adapters to upper-level software, typically the hypervisor.

Embedded management software, the Cisco UCS Manager, offers centralized management for the system components (see Figure 1).


[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. Cisco's Unified Computing System Manager.

Forrester Research Inc. analysts James Staten and Galen Schreck call this architecture a breakthrough. "We believe this is the next step in blade server technology as it collapses a lot of components in these systems-unified network, direct path I/O from the VM through to the chip, to the network, and unique system optimization for virtual workload," they blogged on their Web site.

Forecast: Cloudy
Which environments would find UCS most appealing, and which would be interested in switching from existing solutions to the new architecture? Mark Bowker, an analyst with Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group, suggests the "architecture would be especially appealing to high-end data centers [that] see benefits in cloud computing and have the requirement for it."

Cloud computing is making the rounds in IT today as one of the hottest computing paradigms in which tasks are assigned to a combination of connections, services and software that are accessed over a network. This network of servers and connections is collectively known as "the cloud." Leveraging the scale of the cloud allows users to access exceptional processing power through large-scale cluster computing and server virtualization.

Indeed, the required investment, including power draw and footprint as well as acquisition costs, might be prohibitive for midrange organizations. Wolf, on the other hand, believes UCS could be a fit for midsize companies. "I wouldn't rule out the midrange, where the midrange is 50 to 500 servers," he says.

Wolf believes Cisco will fight an uphill battle in the competitive blade server market. "With solutions like OpenView [from] HP, you need a compelling reason to change," he says. In part, that's because high-end data centers may be hesitant to manage a greater mix of server platforms than they already do. Additionally, major new products frequently have a long proof-of-concept period, and the recession has placed even greater limits on IT budgets and personnel.

Because Cisco is new to the server world, potential customers would have to be convinced that Cisco's commitment to its new architecture is a lasting one, says Greg Schulz, principal analyst and infrastructure consultant at The StorageIO Group. "Even enterprise data centers willing to switch will be making a major time and resource commitment just to evaluate, let alone deploy [it]. UCS must be available for the long haul," he explains.

Schulz suggests that Cisco has developed UCS not as a head-to-head competitor for former partners Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Dell Inc., but as an integrated platform that offers all data center building blocks in a unified form factor.

Industry Moves and Countermoves
Of course, those major server OEMs may not see it the same way. Their countermeasures may include, for example, a little tit for tat: they may consider replacing networking components heretofore provided by Cisco with hardware from Juniper Networks Inc. or Brocade.

Another hurdle Cisco faces in adoption of UCS is that it has no history of building servers. "No one is clamoring for another server vendor, so despite the strong showing of partners at this launch, Cisco will have to win over enterprise server buyers who, up to this point, have had no relationship with the company," wrote Staten and Schreck in their blog.

The only conceptually direct competition to UCS comes from Marlboro, Mass.-based Egenera Inc. Egenera's Processor Area Network (PAN) Manager essentially abstracts server and network resources in the same way a Storage Area Network abstracts storage resources.

Like Cisco's new system, PAN Manager pools physical and virtual resources into a blade platform. The company now works with OEMs to integrate PAN Manager onto additional hardware platforms. The company boasts a strong OEM relationship with Dell, which places PAN Manager on the PowerEdge M610 blade servers.

Egenera chief marketing officer Christine Crandell says the unified architecture is the solution to the "complexity conundrum" that surrounds the presence of many silos in a data center and the difficulty involved in managing them. "The savings for the high-end data center in CAPEX/OPEX is up to 70 percent," she says.

The drivers that Egenera identifies for its installed base of about 1,300 customers include single-vendor support, the simplicity of a "wire once" approach and the fluidity provided by software-based virtualization.

HP's most similar offering is HP Matrix, a converged software, server, storage and networking platform that automates service delivery for the data center. HP Matrix Orchestration Environment provides a unified management interface to design, deploy and optimize the application infrastructure. Together, these offerings create an integrated pool of resources that operate in both physical and virtual environments, creating a pre-packaged infrastructure.

HP is highlighting the virtualization aspects of HP Matrix, with the bundling of HP Insight Capacity Advisor Virtualization Service into the infrastructure. The service, according to HP, helps customers assess, plan and design their virtual environment. HP Insight Capacity Advisor consolidation software identifies the best approach for reducing the risk of downtime, increasing responsiveness and helping maximize the return on investment of a virtualized deployment, according to the company.

Room to Grow
Cisco's UCS still has improvements to make before making good on its "cloud in a box" marketing slogan, says StorageIO's Schulz. One of the largest gaps to be filled is the storage solution.

To that end, Cisco is likely to look to longtime partner -- and VMware parent company -- EMC Corp. to shore up its storage story. The two companies have already announced an expansion of their strategic alliance. With the launch of UCS, they'll focus on testing products for interoperability and on developing data center solutions and support offerings.

While acknowledging that EMC is the likely storage partner, StorageIO's Schulz believes the field is open. "The question is, whose storage can work well? Who else can and will be part of the Cisco ecosystem?" he asks.

"When those questions are answered, UCS has the potential to change the playing field," Schulz says. "Virtualization has done more than outgrown traditional IT architecture and deployment processes. It's also upset conventional thinking in the data center."

Current environments are often comfortable with the silos of server, storage and network control, and vendors have relied on those silos to nurture and protect relationships. But that thinking is becoming increasingly obsolete. In order to gain market share, UCS will need to gain an even greater share of mind. Cisco is repositioning itself as a virtual infrastructure management vendor, and, as such, will have to convince the industry that it's time for a pre-packaged cloud in a box. If it can't, the cloud could dissolve in a puff of wind.

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