Cisco Goes Hyper With New UCS Servers

New blade and modular servers are designed for an emerging category of apps that Cisco calls 'edge-scale computing.'

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

September 4, 2014

7 Min Read
Cisco Goes Hyper With New UCS Servers

Cisco is expanding its server line beyond the conventional data center, building on new carrier and enterprise IT practices pioneered by hyperscale businesses such as Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) today launched new servers in its Unified Computing System (UCS) line, designed to suit the needs of private cloud, virtualized workloads, and automated network management. The UCS Mini blade server is designed for remote offices and midmarket businesses, while the M-Series modular server is designed for next-generation data center applications. (See Cisco Broadens UCS Blade Server Line.)

In addition to launching new servers, Cisco is coining a new buzzword: "edge-scale computing." Edge-scale computing incorporates mobile devices, sensors, smart objects, the Internet of Things (which Cisco calls the "Internet of Everything"), and big data. Edge-scale computing also serves smart infrastructure in industries including manufacturing and energy.

Figure 1: Source: Fleshas Source: Fleshas

"There's a need for compute out there in the field to collect up a lot of the data, do the initial processing, decision making, and then pass data back to the data center core," says Todd Brannon, director of marketing for Cisco UCS.

Cisco's new UCS Mini blade server is designed to put compute power out near the network edge. Where traditional rack servers are optimized for enterprise scale, with hundreds of servers, the Mini is optimized for installations of about 15 servers or less. "For IT, it's a small package of enterprise-grade computing they can put in remote sites," Brannon says. IT can manage the server remotely, as if it were located in the data center.

In addition to edge-scale computing, the Mini is also designed for midmarket customers. "In any environment where the customer only has a handful of servers, what the customer wants is simplicity," Brannon says. The Mini supports automatic configuration. "You can change the configuration through policy rather than turning the knobs manually."

Remote-office and midmarket servers are nothing new of course, but businesses now have new needs for this scale of server. In retail, for example, customers expect a converged digital and physical experience in the store. Retailers are arming salespeople with tablets, and when a customer walks into the store, an app is aware of the customer's identity. The salesperson greets the customer by name, and takes the customer to try on merchandise selected online. This kind of intelligence requires more than the traditional dumb point-of-sale system; it requires a virtual desktop app, Brannon says.

"There's a term in retail -- 'retail is detail'," Brannon says. "And detail is data."

And it's not just retail -- similar transformations are going on in ballparks to enrich the fan experience, and in hotels and convention centers. Instrumented oil drilling rigs are collecting swathes of data and passing it on to data centers for processing.

The data center is also changing, driven by business needs, according to Brannon:

  • Carriers need to serve enterprise customers with increased mobility for virtual machines, infrastructure as a service, and more.

  • Carriers and enterprises both want to move faster in the data center, accelerating app deployment.

  • Carriers need to help enterprises make greater use of scale-out apps such as MapReduce and Hadoop, originally developed for the cloud and becoming more common for data center computing.

  • The cloud model itself is inherently "scale-out," running workloads on hundreds or thousands of compute nodes rather than a big heavy servers.

  • Customers are looking for a uniform operating model across traditional applications and these new edge-scale and scale-out apps, rather than operating them in separate silos.

Find out more about key developments related to the systems and technologies deployed in data centers on Light Reading's data center infrastructure channel

To serve these new data center needs, Cisco is introducing the UCS M-Series Modular Servers, optimized for high-density scale-out computing.

The M-Series provides a cartridge approach to hardware configuration, separating the processor and memory from other subsystems. With other servers, customers need to replace the entire server to upgrade processor and memory, but with the M series, customers can replace just a cartridge containing the processor and memory and save the other components. Each rack shares storage and networking among all the servers.

That results in cost savings -- 30% of the cost of the server is IO, disk, and other components that are not CPU and RAM, Brannon says.

The M Series comes in a 2U enclosure with 8 slots, each with a cartridge with two Intel Xeon E3 compute nodes, for 16 servers.

Cisco refers to the modular approach as "disaggregating," a word -- and principle -- favored by the Facebook -led Open Compute Project, which is developing its own server and switch design to challenge proprietary companies like Cisco. (See Facebook in Production Testing of Open 'Wedge' Switch.)

Next page: Open Compute not a threat

Cisco says Open Compute isn't a threat. "At this point, Open Compute is about bending sheet metal around white boxes," Brannon says. "If you're Facebook and you have a team of engineers, that's fine. Our product is designed for mainstream IT operations that want to operate like Facebook in terms of scale, but don't have the resources to scale the infrastructure themselves."

Cisco's blade server business has grown since its 2009 launch to a $3 billion run rate and grew 30% year-on-year. Cisco is number one in US revenue market share for x86 blade servers, according to an IDC study.

Cisco describes today's announcement as its biggest technology launch of the calendar year, and the biggest UCS announcement since the business launched in 2009.

IDC analyst Matt Eastwood says that's not hype. "They're making a play for the bigger part of the market," he says. The first generation of UCS was targeted to enterprises and service providers moving to virtualization. "They're recognizing today that not all workload is virtualized."

Cisco is recognizing that not all servers are in data centers -- almost half are in server closets or server rooms. Many applications still run on traditional servers, and in branch office, remote offices and midmarket companies, Eastwood says.

Also, businesses are employing a new style of computing, pioneered by hyperscale companies, including Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Facebook and Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN). Apps don't just run on individual, powerful machines; instead they run on large numbers of smaller machines, Eastwood says.

The UCS business has been an up note for Cisco in an otherwise gloomy series of quarters. Last month, Cisco announced 6,000 layoffs in its quarterly financial report, in which it also said it had halted the revenue declines of three previous quarters -- but barely. (See Cisco to Ax Up to 6,000 Jobs, But It's Excited About SDN.)

"The data center business has been one of the bright spots for the past few years. So they want to row it and leverage it into other products," Eastwood says. UCS becomes a lever that helps Cisco sell its other lines -- networking, security, collaboration and unified communications. When UCS launched in 2009, it was a reaction to customers wanting to unify resources -- not deal with compute, storage and networking separately.

Cisco's competition includes Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and Fujitsu Ltd. (Tokyo: 6702; London: FUJ; OTC: FJTSY). Cisco's strength is in its channel, service provider relationships and solutions partnering. "The challenge is in margins, and how far Cisco is willing to get dragged down into price competition that's common in markets like this," Eastwood says. The customers Cisco is looking to attract with its new servers are used to paying lower prices. "They will have to be careful on where and how often they engage on price."

Finally, in addition to the new servers, Cisco introduced the fourth generation of its existing UCS product line, with the UCS B200 M4 Blade Server, C220 M4 and C240 M4 Rack Server. And Cisco introduced UCS Director Express for Big Data to automate deploying Hadoop and manage both physical infrastructure and Hadoop software.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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