The good and bad of Cisco's UCS servers

Cisco is adding new innovation to an old market and shaking up the industry, with an announcement that will be one of the most technologically significant this year.

By now you've read numerous blogs, articles, and tweets about the Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) announcement. While this event may not carry the same weight as the IBM PC, System/360, or VAX, it is probably the most significant server announcement in many years.

Cisco deserves a lot of credit for its industry chutzpah. John Chambers and Co. were willing to risk deep relationships with HP and IBM to enter the server market. In this way, Cisco is adding new innovation to an old market and shaking up the industry as well.

OK, so what about the UCS products? Here is my quick evaluation:

Pluses

  1. Innovative packaging that requires less rack space, power, and cooling than a standard blade server.

  2. Designed for tight integration with server virtualization and the network.

    a. Cisco Virtual switch (i.e. VN-Link) replaces VMware switch. This links virtual and physical networking policy and management.

    b. Cisco adds extra memory to its server platforms, which enables it to increase the ratio of virtual servers hosted on each physical server.

  3. Cisco manages the entire UCS virtual data center with one management platform. Cisco management can be integrated with other management platforms from vendors like BMC.

  4. The overall strength is in integrating and improving both storage and network I/O. In this regard, Cisco could have a significant performance advantage in large data center deployments.

Minuses

  1. Extremely proprietary architecture. Heck, Cisco is implementing its own version of Ethernet (What is more standard than Ethernet, for heaven's sake?) to consolidate storage and network I/O. The "real" standards won't be in place for another year or two.

  2. This is a brand new arena for Cisco where its market share is 0 percent. With Dell, HP, and IBM well established in this market, expect enterprise CIOs to proceed with extreme caution.

  3. The advantages of this architecture are minimal in a mixed environment. Today, all enterprises have other servers, and heterogeneous server support is not a core feature of this announcement.

  4. Systems management has always been a Cisco weakness. HP and IBM are much better positioned here.

Cisco is aiming for the clouds both figuratively and literally. It is betting that its highly integrated virtual UCS is the best fit for massive data centers and cloud computing. This is probably true as of now, but Dell, HP, and IBM can certainly respond with product enhancements and open standards to bridge this gap. In the meantime, Brocade and Juniper should benefit immensely as server providers look for Cisco alternatives. HP will likely buy Extreme Networks or Force 10 to bolster the high end of its ProCurve networking product offering.

Ten years from now, tech industry historians will remember at least two things about 2009: the economic mess and the Cisco UCS announcement. If nothing else, Cisco just made the industry much more exciting than it was last Friday.

 

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