Cisco Upgrades UCS, Data Center Strategy

Cisco is rolling out new rack and blade servers based on Intel's new Xeon 7500 series chips, new network switches and new virtualization capabilities as it grows its converged data center strategy that it introduced last year with the first iteration of the UCS. The moves ramp up the data center competition with IBM, HP and Dell.

Cisco Systems officials last spring gave a jolt to the infrastructure market when they rolled out their data center strategy headlined by their Unified Computing System converged data center offering.

Thirteen months later, Cisco is ready to launch its latest data center vision, which includes the second-generation UCS, enhanced I/O technologies for greater scalability, networking switches and storage.

Cisco officials are announcing the new and enhanced products April 6. The offerings further their vision of a converged data center, where compute, storage, networking and management software are contained in a single product, with high-performance processors and virtualization technology being key drivers.

The moves ramps up Cisco's competition in the data center with the likes of IBM, Dell and Hewlett-Packard, a competition that over the past year has strained previously close relationships with the other vendors.

Cisco, for a long time a presence in the data center through its networking offerings, is now rapidly growing what it offers IT administrators, and is doing so both through internal innovation and high-profile partnerships with such companies as virtualization vendor VMware, storage giant EMC and Intel. For example, those four vendors announced in November 2009 that they are starting a new venture called the VCE-Virtual Computing Environment-to create cloud computing systems called VBlocks that offer integrated hardware and software.

The efforts of Cisco and its partners are beginning to change the way other OEMs look at their offerings, according to IDC analyst Matt Eastwood.

"The x86 server market is large and server road maps take a long time to change, but I would suggest that Cisco is forcing major server OEMs to rethink how they are positioning in the market, particularly in the enterprise," Eastwood said in an e-mail to eWEEK. "This is driving a conversation regarding convergence (server, storage, networking and management) which exposes weaknesses in some traditional server providers. I would expect additional acquisitions and investments will occur particularly in the management space with networking and storage partnerships also remaining critical."

Cisco by itself isn't forcing its server rivals to change for the sake of change, he said. However, the company's data center strategy is evolving in response to the needs of enterprises and service providers that are rapidly adopting virtualization-where more than half of their workloads are virtualized-and high rates of business change as IT tries to keep up with business demands, he said.

"Cisco is reading many of the same tea leaves in the market that signal the need for a new way of delivering compute, storage and networking for tomorrow's data center," Eastwood said. "This creates challenges for traditional server vendors because these enterprise customers continue to represent the lion share of the enterprise profit pool and server vendors are fearful of another strong influencer in the market."

More than 400 businesses have adopted its UCS since it started shipping in July 2009, according to Cisco.

The impact on other vendors of Cisco's strong move in the data center can be seen mostly in HP's response. Once close partners, HP has been aggressively creating its own converged data center story, including ramping up the capabilities of its ProCurve networking business through internal innovation and the impending acquisition of 3Com.

Cisco in February also announced it was not renewing channel and systems integrator agreements with HP.

With the new offerings, that competition will only increase. Cisco officials are unveiling a host of upgraded blade and rack servers for its UCS, and also are rolling out two new systems powered by Intel's new four- to eight-core Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" chips.

A key feature to the new B440 M1 and C460 M1 servers is not only do they sport the latest Intel technology, but they also support Cisco's FEXlink I/O architecture, which is designed to offer better performance and bandwidth. It also means better access to other data center resources.

FEXlink-or fabric extender-brings the switching fabric of a data center closer to the systems, which Cisco says means 160G bps for each server blade, four times greater than traditional systems. Some storage and switching components of the UCS already support FEXlink, according to Cisco.

"There's huge bandwidth per blade, without a chassis change," Paul Durzan, director of platform marketing for Cisco, said in an interview.

It also works with storage resources by enabling the systems to offer support for 8G-bps Fibre Channel switches, improving storage bandwidth and virtualization capabilities.

"We're [enabling] it to be used for any workload, whether it's physical or virtual," Durzan said.

The new servers and FEXlink support mean that the two new Cisco systems offer four times the compute capacity of previous systems. The B440 M1 and C460 M1 will be available in the summer, according to Cisco.

Cisco also is outfitting other rack and blade systems with Intel's new six-core Xeon 5600 "Westmere EP" processors, a 32-nanometer platform the chip maker introduced in March.

In addition to the new and upgraded UCS blades, Cisco also is offering two new Nexus 2000 fabric extenders-the Nexus 2232, which supports 32 10G-bps Ethernet ports and enables FCoE (Fibre Channel over Ethernet) capabilities in the Nexus 5000 to the server racks, and the 2248 48-port 10/100M-bps Ethernet extender.

Cisco also rolled out the MDS 9148 SAN (storage area network) switch that supports 48 8G-bps Fibre Channel ports.

In addition, Cisco is offering the Nexus 1010, which officials called a virtual switching service for provisioning virtual machines. The goal, they said, is to make it easier for IT administrator to provision and manage their virtual environments by hosting such virtual services as Cisco's Nexus 1000V virtual switch.

Cisco has also upgraded it UCS Manager software, integrating it with the major provisioning tools from such vendors as BMC Software, CA, EMC, IBM and HP.