Cisco UCS 2.0: Flashy new data center servers revealed

Cisco this week unveiled the second generation of its successful data center server system with versions that incorporate solid state flash memory designed to speed data access and cut power usage.

At the same time, Cisco enhanced a management platform for its Unified Computing System (UCS) servers, and extended its line of Nexus data center switches to address requirements in the access and small core layers. (See the slideshow version of Cisco's switches.)

The new and enhanced products are intended to solidify Cisco's entrenchment in data center networking, while continuing to build on and broaden the momentum it's realized in data center servers since entering that market in 2009. Cisco says it now has 28,000 customers for the UCS server system and that the product line is growing at 60% per year, the fastest rate of any Cisco product.

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The new UCS servers dubbed the Invicta Series employ flash memory technology obtained last year through the acquisition of a company called WHIPTAIL. Cisco says that solid-state memory systems situated closer to the workloads that need it enable faster access to data, and reduce power and space compared to traditional data center memory and storage methods.

"This is a good first step for Cisco" into storage, says Henry Baltazar of Forrester Research. "With convergence and software-defined IT, you need storage."

The new offerings include the UCS Invicta C3124SA Appliance, for I/O acceleration in medium-scale environments; the Invicta Scaling System, a rack enclosure for the appliances that's designed for scale and capacity; and integration with the UCS Director management system for single pane control.

The C3124A appliance can support 250,000 IOPS and 1.9GBps bandwidth while the Scaling System can support up to 4 million IOPS and 40GBps bandwidth.

The UCS Invicta Series is designed to improve the performance of data intensive workloads like analytics and intelligence, batch processing, email, online transaction processing, video, virtual desktops, database loads, and high-performance computing. Cisco says such solid-state memory systems can extract, integrate and analyze data 10x faster than conventional methods, run batches with interrupting workflow, break bottlenecks between servers and memory, and compress more video files faster.

"A key area for flash is performance sensitive apps," Baltazar says. "It's also good in virtualization [where it's] easier to consolidate workloads with high performance flash. It's really, really good at random access."

In multi-tenant environments, Invicta can enable big relational databases to co-exist with virtual desktops on the same server platform.

Broader UCS management reach

Invicta's integration with UCS Director is but one enhancement to the UCS management platform Cisco unveiled this week. Others include scale, extensibility, and support for heterogeneous environments.

UCS Director automates the converged IT infrastructure, Cisco says. This is different from UCS Manager, which controls a single UCS domain; UCS Central, which governs multiple UCS domains; and Intelligent Automation for Cloud, which is a cloud service orchestrator for private, hybrid and platform-as-a-service cloud services.

Each management layer can share information with the other, however.

For scale, UCS Director supports management of 50,000 virtual machines in large data centers, Cisco says. It also now includes a software developer's kit for extensibility to the applications of third-party software vendors, and support for HP, Dell and IBM servers. It also supports management of network equipment from Brocade and F5, and Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors in addition to those from VMware.

Cisco extends Nexus switching line

In switching, Cisco unveiled a six-slot, 9RU chassis for the Nexus 7700 line. The Nexus 7706 is targeted at small core, aggregation and data center interconnect applications, with a switching capacity of 21Tbps, 192 ports of 1/10G, 48 ports of 40G and nine ports of 100G Ethernet.

The existing Nexus 7718 and 7710 support switching capacities of 83Tbps and 42Tbps, respectively, and 1/10G densities of 768 ports and 384 ports.

Cisco also rolled out a 10G "F3" module for the Nexus 7700 line that is designed for core, spine, leaf, data center interconnect and SAN connectivity. It features programmability via OpenFlow, Cisco's onePK, Python and XML APIs, and consumes 35% less power than previous generation "F2" modules for the Nexus 7000 line.

Cisco also unveiled its eventual successor to the Nexus 5500 access/leaf switches with the Nexus 5600. The 5600 features 72 Unified Ports ports that support Ethernet, Fibre Channel, or Fibre Channel-over-Ethernet or 128 10G ports, with six or 12 40G ports, respectively. The 5600s feature 1 microsecond latency, VXLAN bridging and routing, OpenFlow, onePK, Python and XML programmability, and can scale to 1,152 ports through fabric extenders, Cisco says.

Some analysts believe Cisco should explain which APIs and protocols to use with certain applications or requirements when programming the switch.

"This should become a workhorse switch for them," says Zeus Kerravala, principal at ZK Research. "But when should users use one programming method vs. the other? Cisco offers the broadest toolkit out there, but when to use what?"

Unified Ports have also now been added to the Nexus 6000 40G switching line. The Nexus 6004 can now support 20 ports of 2/4/8G Fibre Channel, or 1/10G Ethernet, or 10G FCoE, Cisco says.

Cisco also added a new member to the Nexus 3100 access/leaf line of switches, which are based on merchant silicon. The 3172TQ supports 72 10GBase-T ports and can function as a VXLAN top-of-rack switch. It also supports OpenStack orchestration and provisioning, Cisco says.

Support for OpenStack (an open source cloud computing platform) has also been added to the Nexus 1000V virtual switch, which now supports KVM hypervisors in addition to its current VMware and Hyper-V support.

Lastly, Cisco added Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) partners. They write applications for Cisco's APIC controller, which delegates and enforces application policies in an ACI fabric comprised of Cisco's new Nexus 9000 switches.

New partners include A10 Networks, Palo Alto Networks, Cloudera, MapR and Catbird. They join some 28 partners Cisco introduced at ACI's launch late last year.

Cisco says it has over 305 customers for its Nexus 9000/ACI product line, three of which could be $40 million to $100 million deals.The Nexus 7706 and F3 10G module are currently shipping. Everything else will be available later this quarter.

Pricing information was not available.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 27 years, 22 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

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