New Details on Cisco’s Secret Blade Servers

Cisco Systems is preparing to launch blade servers specifically tuned for virtualization that will be far and away denser and more powerful than any existing blade servers on the market, has learned. They will also be capable of integrating tightly with Cisco’s high-speed networking hardware,

Cisco’s “Project California” marks the networking giant’s entry into the blade server market, one dominated by hardware companies like IBM, HP and Dell, which are every bit as massive as Cisco and also frequent partners in large scale sales. By skipping a few generations of older technology, Cisco will enter the market with very fast and extremely dense hardware.

The blades will be introduced on March 16 at an event in San Francisco, and first customer shipments will begin on March 30. Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) is waiting for the new processors from Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), which will launch them in March. Intel has confirmed the processors are due for March but declined to confirm a specific date.

The blades are targeted at the virtualization market with an emphasis on memory and networking bandwidth, the two of the biggest bottlenecks in virtualized systems. Each blade will sport two Intel Xeon X5570 processors, the first of the new Nehalem generation.

Benchmarks released by HP running an SAP performance test show the X5570, which runs at 2.93GHz, is 119 percent faster than the 3.3GHz X5470, the top of Intel’s current generation of quad-core Xeon processors.

Fast chips need fast memory, which they will get to the tune of 384GB of DDR3 memory per blade, not 192GB as initially reported. Blade servers from IBM, Dell and HP typically come with a maximum of 128GB of memory.

It’s the new Nehalem processors, with the memory controller on the CPU and the QuickPath Interconnect (QPI), that allows the blades to access so much memory without choking. QPI has a bandwidth throughput of up to 32GB per second per link. The old Frontside Bus used in prior Intel processor generations maxed out at 1.6GB per second.

The blades will be 4u high and fit up to eight per chassis, although some will need to be removed to make room for Cisco’s Nexus 5000 switch.


By using the Nexus 5000, the blades will talk directly to Cisco’s Unified Fabric and are built to be virtualization-ready. The servers will also feature tight integration with and support for VMware software.

The blades will come with the forthcoming vSphere 4.0, the updated and renamed VMware (NYSE: VMW) Infrastructure software that is expected to address a number of limitations in the current 3.5 version. This package includes the ESX Server, Virtual Center and Virtual SMP, plus other optional titles like VMotion.

As it stands now, vSphere 3.5 is not usable on a Cisco blade as speced. vSphere can only see four guest CPUs, 64GB of memory and 32 hosts per clusters. Cisco’s management software will support up to 40 chassis, or 320 blades, making them appear as a single unit for management and partitioning purposes.

A spokesperson for Cisco declined to comment, saying the company does not discuss “rumors and speculation.”

Next page: Hundreds of virtual machines on one blade?

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These blades are designed to let dozens or even hundreds of virtual machines run on one blade. Analysts contacted by said that should provide the needed density for increasingly cramped datacenters.

“This is, I think, the only way we’ll be able to provide the business services and apps that we all need and are growing faster than anticipated,” said Bob Merritt, principal analyst with Convergent Semiconductors. “There’s no reason in the world Cisco can’t be a formal competitor in that area.”

Merritt cited a white paper from HP that said one-third of CIOs surveyed think that in the next three to five years, their datacenters will be unable to meet the rapid growth in demand for business services.

“That’s what’s driving the demand for virtualization and servers in general, the demand for business services is expanding at a phenomenal rate,” said Merritt. “They are going to be a very strong competitor. It’s not a business they’ve been in before. Not that they didn’t have a base in blades, it’s just that their focus was elsewhere.”

Added Charles King, principal analyst for Pund-IT:

“The play that they are doing here is obviously they have the networking technology and expertise to really dress these [blades] up, and they can put any kind of back end on it they want to and deliver some pretty heavy duty performance,” he said.

King thinks that Cisco’s real value proposition is that the network, not the blades, is where the value is, and Cisco knows networking.

“System performance depends on how robust the networking technology is. So to my mind, it makes a really intriguing value play for Cisco to say the network and robustness of the network is just as important as the robustness of the server hardware,” he said.

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