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Regardless of what happens, Cisco will have to "demonstrate the value of a first-generation product and prove its effectiveness in a highly virtualized data center," said ESG's Bowker.
Cisco's Jackie Ross believes the company is more than up to the task.
"Our goal is to offer a complete data center solution optimized for virtualization, unified I/O, management and integration," said Ross, Cisco's vice president of marketing for server access and virtualization.
Ross said UCS isn't burdened by legacy design, although it is able to run virtualized Windows and Linux applications.
"At the same time, we have integrated the network side with the compute side, while reducing the numbers of layers of integration and the level of complexity between the two," she said.
"Instead of building a conventional server and then retrofitting it to do virtualization, Cisco has built a server optimized to do virtualization," said Bryan Doerr, CTO of Savvis, an IT provider and Cisco partner that has been testing UCS for a month.
Emphasizing that UCS is a lot more than a mere blade server strategy, Ross said UCS introduces a rich set of technical innovations: embedded system management; just-in-time provisioning with service profiles; a unified fabric; VN-Link virtualization support; state-of-the-art performance; and energy efficiency.
Ross said customers will experience I/O improvements from the unified fabric's ability to "wire once," eliminating the need for multiple sets of adapters, cables and switches. The system's fabric extenders eliminate blade server switches by passing all network traffic to interconnects, where the traffic can be processed and managed centrally.
Another I/O benefit of UCS comes from the platform's VN-Link virtualization support, which extends the network to the virtual machine, said Ross. This capability creates a consistent operational model, whether networks are connected to physical servers or virtual ones.
Ross explained that VN-Link virtualization enables all links to be centrally configured and managed without introducing any extra switching layers. Bottom-line: I/O configurations and network policies follow virtual machines.
"Now, I/O paths can be easily managed, as policy layers and functions tied to virtual machines can be moved automatically," agreed Doerr.
Critics Weigh In
Cisco's attempt to rewrite the future of unified computing has been met with predictable skepticism, even scorn from networking and server competitors.
One of the more penetrating criticisms came from Rick Becker, Dell's (NASDAQ: DELL) vice president of software and solutions.
"While Cisco is a leader in the networking space, the server market is a very different ballgame," Becker wrote in a blog. "CIOs aren't looking for proprietary, appliance-like products like UCS because they drive up TCO and create more complexity. This is where Cisco has missed the mark."
Ross countered that UCS is standards-based and that Cisco gear can coexist with gear from Dell, HP, IBM and others in the data center.
Whether Cisco can remake the unified computing space or not remains to be seen, but the company will likely have some effect on the virtualization and storage landscape, with its new architecture and the beginnings of what could become a tight relationship with VMware and EMC.
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