Cisco Heads Deeper into the Data Center

Arthur Cole

Cisco took probably its boldest move into the inner workings of the data center this week, unveiling a new "Unified Computing System" highlighted by the company's long-expected entrance into the server market.


If embraced by the industry, the platform could have a far-reaching impact on the data center, not just in terms of computing power and networking flexibility, but in the very way that data centers are outfitted and designed. The system embraces both a modular design and open source software, intended to provide streamlined integration and a high degree of customization, two goals that often are at odds with each other.


To accomplish that end, the UCS platform is based on existing Cisco networking technology -- namely a 10 GbE foundation for combining currently separate LAN, SAN and other networking architectures under a single fabric -- along with a virtualization component, enhanced storage access and a consolidated management stack. The package also features the new UCS B-Series blade server, built around the Intel Nehelem processor and a proprietary memory system said to provide room for large numbers of virtual machines.


The system is also tied to a new set of services covering tasks such as architecture design, planning and migration, along with remote operation and management.


All the bells and whistles are impressive, but the real game-changer here is the way Cisco would propel the drive toward a more modular data center design, according to Gartner's Andrew Butler. Enterprises have been slowly gravitating toward what he calls "tera-architectures" -- buying discrete sets of server/storage/networking components -- for several years. Cisco brings all three of those sets under one roof, wrapping the whole thing up in a virtual layer for maximum scalability. It looks like the days of designing the center around the server farm are almost over.


This kind of re-engineering is bound to ruffle the feathers of some and smooth those of others. Storage firms such as EMC and NetApp should find themselves in the latter group, according to Enterprise Strategy Forum's Paul Shread. Both firms are slated to become key Cisco partners going forward, most likely tying in their storage networking and management systems to the VMware layer that Cisco has built into the platform.


The open source community should also get a big boost, says CNET News' Matt Asay. Despite the fact that Cisco uses its own proprietary Ethernet, it is working closely with Red Hat to ensure seamless RHEL operation. Sure, they're doing the same thing for Windows, but the fact is that nearly all Cisco customers use RHEL as their guest server OS. That makes continued cooperation with open source developers crucial to the program's success.


Still, there are a lot of unknowns about the system that probably won't be revealed until we get into actual field deployments. How will it gel with the rising cloud infrastructure? How well will it co-exist with legacy environments? For its part, Cisco has set up a portal for all things UCS. Here you'll find links to podcasts, a video interview with John Chambers and the company's regular data center blog. It's a lot to take in, but that's to be expected with such a major release.


Now, we only have to wait to see what the customer reaction will be.

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