Cisco Will Clarify UCS Details March 30

Cisco’s Unified Computing System announcement may have been as vaporous as the raining San Francisco weather, but further details on the upcoming blade systems will be disclosed on March 30, has learned.

Yesterday’s announcement was so light on details that after an hour of speeches, the first question from the audience essentially was to ask just what it was Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) was announcing. Part of the murkiness was due to the fact Cisco’s product is based on an unannounced Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) product, a newer version of its Nehalem processor.

Intel has previously said it would release the Nehalem-EP server processor this quarter, and there are only two weeks left. Numerous Internet rumors put the official launch of the Nehalem-EP, to be released under the Xeon X55x0 family of processors on March 30. Intel would not confirm or deny any details related to the release. has learned Cisco will also make some announcements on that same day, disclosing further details of the UCS system, as well as pricing, and begin taking orders. First customer ship is expected the following quarter.

A spokesperson for Cisco declined to comment on “rumor and speculation.”

Basic systems are expected to run “as low as $100,000,” according to sources familiar with the hardware.

The blades come in two form factors, half-height and full height. “Height” is something of a misnomer, since the blades sit lengthwise in the chassis. The full height blade will hold up to 48 memory sockets, allowing it to reach the 384GB capacity first reported last month when 8GB memory DIMMs are used. The half-height blades will come with 24 sockets.

Cisco has said it has a custom memory controller on the blade, but declined to say its function. But one source says the controller allows four memory DIMMs to appear to the processor as one. So instead of seeing four 8GB sticks, the Xeon X5570 being used sees them as one 32GB DIMM.

Such technology has existed for a while, but it was used to make it possible to use lots of cheaper memory chips instead of the more expensive ones. MetaRAM is one such company, using lots of low-cost chips per DIMM to achieve density. But this is a new use, notes Bob Merritt, principal analyst for Convergence Technologies.

“It does increase the addressability range of the system,” said Merritt. “Some architectures have a restriction on how many DIMMs they can address. There may still be a limit on the number of modules a processor can address, and that’s what this could accomplish.”

One console to rule them all

Managing the many virtual machines that will run on these systems falls to BMC, one of Cisco’s software partners in this announcement. BMC’s system management software has been optimized to manage both hardware resources and application and their configurations through a single console.

“Effectively, if you think of the Cisco UCS device as the iPhone, we are the iTunes to their iPhone,” Kia Behnia, CTO of BMC, told “We personalize the servers, give it life, personalize what is running on these servers and with a click of a button, they can reprovision their hardware for what they need.”

Today, administrators need days or even weeks to reprovision a server thanks to the complexities of the process, said Behnia. The majority of datacenters today are not automated and require a lot of manual labor, and automated software products are highly complex and not easy to use.

Next page: Attacking administrative costs

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“That’s what Cisco is trying to do here, is attack the admin costs,” said Behnia. He added that the integrated management will handle many of the repetitive tasks, so administrators become more efficient through use of the automation technology.

BMC will continue to support other platforms, he added. “I want to emphasize that while we’ve done a lot of good work and we’re proud of the work we’ve done with Cisco, that same software that we’re shipping Cisco can manage non-Cisco hardware as well. So there’s no lock-in to that particular platform,” Behnia said.

Competitors weigh in

Not everyone in the industry is doing backflips over Cisco’s entry into one of the hottest hardware markets. Cisco had a lengthy list of partners in the announcement, but IBM, HP, and Dell were not among them. Not surprising, since these are the three leaders in the blade space, and their products are usually found right next to Cisco equipment in a datacenter.

IBM (NYSE: IBM) played it diplomatic. “Nothing really to say on the trends that Cisco cited yesterday. They’re obvious. As for the relationship, Cisco remains one of the many partners we work with on network infrastructure projects,” said an IBM spokesperson in an e-mail to

HP (NYSE: HPQ) was more pointed: “Seeing what they’re coming out with, what they’ve announced, from what we can tell, sounds an awful lot like what we’ve been doing. Unified computing, network and storage, we’ve been doing that in blades for years,” Gary Thome, director of strategy for infrastructure, software and blades at HP’s ESS group told

That said, “Given they are bringing products out that are in the same category of products we’ve already been shipping for some time, I guess yes, they are intending to be a competitor with us,” Thome added.

Next page: Articulating differences

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So in the future, where a customer specifies Cisco networking equipment, HP will work with them and support what the customers require, he added.

“At the same time, where customers are looking for server offerings, we’re going to compete vigorously for those offerings,” said Thome.

Marty Lans, senior director of product marketing for networking provider Brocade, felt the same way.

“Our perspective is the things they are talking about are the things we are doing today,” said Lans. “I think we can compete in that space. The things we do with IBM and HP and those guys is integrated down at the same level as Cisco.”

Lans thinks the competitors to Cisco – IBM, HP and Dell, as well as itself – need a better message.

“What you are going to see out of the ‘allies’ is we’ll probably need to do a better job of articulating the solution as a whole because there’s not a lot that needs to be developed to compete against what they are offering here,” he said.

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