Next up in the 2012 lineup for the Intel E5 refresh cycle of its infrastructure offerings is Cisco, with its announcement last week of what it refers to as its third generation of fabric computing. Cisco announced a combination of tangible improvements to both the servers and the accompanying fabric components, as well as some commitments for additional hardware and a major enhancement of its UCS Manager software immediately and later in 2012. Highlights include:

  • New servers – No surprise here, Cisco is upgrading its servers to the new Intel CPU offerings, leading with its high-volume B200 blade server and two C-Series rack-mount servers, one a general-purpose platform and the other targeted at storage-intensive requirements. On paper, the basic components of these servers sound similar to competitors – new E5 COUs, faster I/O, and more memory. In addition to the servers announced for March availability, Cisco stated that it would be delivering additional models for ultra-dense computing and mission-critical enterprise workloads later in the year.
  • Fabric improvements – Because Cisco has a relatively unique architecture, it also focused on upgrades to the UCS fabric in three areas: server, enclosure, and top-level interconnect. The servers now have an optional improved virtual NIC card with support for up to 128 VLANs per adapter and two 20 GB ports per adapter. One in on the motherboard and another can be plugged in as a mezzanine card, giving up to 80 GB bandwidth to each server. The Fabric Interconnect, the component that connects each enclosure to the top-level Fabric Interconnect, has seen its bandwidth doubled to a maximum of 160 GB. The Fabric Interconnect, the top of the UCS management hierarchy and interface to the rest of the enterprise network, has been up graded to a maximum of 96 universal 10Gb ports (divided between downlinks to the blade enclosures and uplinks to the enterprise fabric.
  • UCS Manager enhancements – Two major management enhancements: C-Series blades as part of the UCS management instance and a multi-instance UCS “manager of managers.” Incorporation of C-Series rack servers into the UCS management domain, available this month, will be a major upgrade to Cisco’s management story, and was something that has been discussed since the products were launched in 2009. Extending UCS and its accompanying management console to rack servers gives its rack products an important differentiator versus competitors – the ability to include rack servers in its core virtualized management domain and manage them as a unified resource along with the blades. If delivered on time, the “manager of managers” will be a timely addition because some of their larger production users are almost certainly starting to chafe at the requirement to run multiple UCS Manager instances as their environments outgrow the limitations of a single instance, which is generally much smaller than the theoretical maximum of 320 nodes.

Taken as a whole, Cisco’s enhancements to UCS seem to be timely and well-focused. As its customer base, now claimed as approximately 11,000 customers, grows so do the requirements for more specialized server configurations, hence the commitment to a more diversified product lineup. Likewise, the improvements in overall UCS bandwidth from server to Fabric Interconnect, which both improve overall scalability of a given UCS instance as well as blunt competitive claims that the Fabric Interconnects represents a critical bottleneck. The incorporation of rack-mount servers into the UCS management domain is a competitive first, and the committed ability to manage multiple domains from a single console will be important and remove a competitive scalability issue versus HP.

Overall, a strong set of enhancements to an already successful product line. Collectively these enhancements will keep the competitive vendor dynamics intact, and a very strong reason for existing UCS customers to continue buying as well as a strong set of cards to play in competitive situations.