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Cisco UCS Buyer's Guide

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jan 8, 2010


It's been an interesting year for server vendors. Long established names like Sun began their departure, while just as suddenly, companies that often played in the background, such as Acer, Intel, Lenovo and now Cisco began to garner attention. What next — a Microsoft snapshot of the latest blades from Redmond?

Cisco entered the server market in 2009 with its Unified Computing System, a series of blades and a chassis designed to simplify deployment, particularly for virtualized environments. See how its offerings compare to those of the more established players.

2009 marked Cisco's foray into the world of blades and servers via its Unified Computing System (UCS), which consists of a series of blades and a chassis designed to simplify deployment. It makes heavy use of virtualization to integrate server, network and storage management on one platform.

The Cisco UCS 5108 Blade Server Chassis includes unified fabric and fabric-extender technology. This enables the box to have fewer physical components, requires no independent management, and makes it more energy efficient than the traditional blade server chassis. Cisco claims this architecture reduces TCO compared to traditional legacy deployments.

"This simplicity eliminates the need for dedicated chassis management and blade switches, reduces cabling, and allows scalability to 40 chassis without adding complexity while reducing TCO," said Paul Durzan, director of product management, Server Access and Virtualization Group, Cisco Systems.

It uses standard front-to-back cooling, is 6RU high and can accommodate up to eight half-width, or four full-width UCS B-Series Blade Servers. Because the chassis uses the UCS fabric interconnects, there is no need to add management functionality at the server or chassis level. Everything except the midplane is hot-pluggable and user serviceable. Cisco brings the unified networking fabric into the chassis via up to two fabric extenders that pass all I/O traffic to parent fabric interconnects.

"This interface to the unified fabric reduces the number of adapters, cables, chassis-resident LAN and SAN switches, and upstream ports that must be purchased, managed, powered and cooled," said Durzan.

Servers

For now, five blades are on the market. More announcements are scheduled for 2010. B-Series servers operate in the Cisco chassis.

The Cisco UCS B-250 M1 Extended Memory Blade Server is for the most demanding virtualization and large dataset applications, as it is designed to maximize performance and capacity. It is a full-width, two-socket blade server. According to Durzan, the B-250 has more than double the amount of memory compared to traditional two-socket x86 servers.

Like all B and C models, the B-250 holds up to two Intel Xeon 5500 series processors. Memory, though, for the various systems varies markedly. The B-250 has up to 384 GB of DDR3 memory. It also includes two dual-port mezzanine cards for up to 40 Gbps of I/O per blade.

The UCS B-200 M1 Blade Server is a half-width, two-socket server. It comes with up to 96 GB DDR memory. One Cisco UCS 5108 chassis can house up to eight B-200 servers, with a maximum of 320 per complete UCS set up.

The B-200 and B-250 each come with two optional Small Form Factor (SFF) Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) hard drives available in 73GB 15k RPM and 146GB 10k RPM versions with an LSI logic 1064e controller and integrated RAID.

There are also three C-series models. The UCS C200 M1 server is a high-density, two-socket 1RU rack-mount server. It comes with up to 96 GB DDR memory, and up to four internal SAS or SATA disk drives (up to 2 terabytes).

The UCS C210 M1 is a two-socket, 2RU rack-mount server. It, too, has up to 96 GB RAM, but it holds more disk — up to 16 internal SAS or SATA drives (up to 8 TBs).

The UCS C250 M1 server is a two-socket, 2RU rack-mount server. It comes with a whole lot of RAM — up to 384 GB, as well as eight SAS or SATA drives (up to 4 TB).

Server Contender?

Can Cisco effectively muscle in on the server landscape, or at least find a place in the blade space? Mike Karp, an analyst at Ptak Noel and Associates pointed out that HP, IBM and Dell have been supplying blade servers for the better part of a decade. He just doesn't see IT managers walking away from all that equipment and abandoning those relationships. Yet that is part of the choice Cisco is asking them to make.

"Cisco boxes cannot manage third-party equipment or be managed by them (yet)," said Karp. "To add a Cisco box means another management scheme."

That being said, he does see an area where the UCS concept might just take root — in the private or public cloud, and among service providers. Each of these, he said, is a self-contained environment. The unified nature of the Cisco proposition could have strong appeal to those that don't want to have to add more real-estate to manage.

"If an IT manager is creating a new platform within his internal IT structure (private cloud) or off-loading this part of the IT function to a third party (public cloud), it makes no difference, as in the first place, it's a stand-alone environment, and in the second, the management issue is somebody else's problem," said Karp.

Cisco's UCS Line Up

Model UCS B200 M1 Blade Server UCS B250 M1 Extended Memory Blade Server UCS C200 M1 High-Density Rack-Mount Server UCS C210 M1 General-Purpose Rack-Mount Server UCS C250 M1 Extended-Memory Rack-Mount Server
Niche Dynamic, virtualized operating environments; delivers simplified, centralized deployment and management capabilities and unified, low-latency fabric Demanding virtualization and large-data-set workloads in dynamic, virtualized operating environments Production-level virtualization and mainstream data center workloads Economical, high-capacity, reliable, internal storage; ideal for file, storage, database and content delivery Demanding virtualization and large data set workloads
Size and Form Factor Half-Width Full-Width 1RU 2RU 2RU
Processors Up to two Intel Xeon Series 5500 multicore processors Up to two Intel Xeon Series 5500 multicore processors Up to two Intel Xeon Series 5500 multicore processors Up to two Intel Xeon Series 5500 multicore processors Up to two Intel Xeon Series 5500 multicore processors
Memory Capacity Up to 96GB Up to 384GB Up to 96 GB Up to 96 GB Up to 384GB
Max. Internal Disk Drive 2 x 2.5" SAS Hot Swap 2 x 2.5" SAS Hot Swap 4 x3.5" SAS/SATA 16 x 2.5" SAS/SATA 8 x 2.5" SAS/SATA
Pricing* Blades start around $1,550, and the chassis starts at around $4,000 Blades start around $1,550 and the chassis is priced at around $4,000 Blades start around $1,550 and the chassis is priced at around $4,000 Blades start around $1,550 and the chassis is priced at around $4,000 Blades start around $1,550 and the chassis is priced at around $4,000

* Cisco did not provide prices, so all numbers are estimates

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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