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UCS spurs shared virtualized data center vision for VMware, Cisco

When it released its Unified Computing System, Cisco made waves with HP and IBM. But in a VMware vSphere architecture, UCS could pave the way for a 100% virtualized data center.

Steve Kaplan, Contributor

 Despite the increasing lines of demarcation, data center competition is far from clear-cut. Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM continue to sell Cisco Systems Inc. gear, while VMware counts the two giants among its best resellers. But the particularly close technological relationship between Cisco and VMware will provide each company with a synergistic advantage.

At the heart of this relationship is the synergy between Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) and VMware's new virtualization technology, vSphere. Cisco's tight integration with vSphere gives its networking customers yet another reason to purchase VMware, while VMware shops will find Cisco's integrated networking capabilities on a different level from that of any other manufacturer.

An overview of the current virtualization landscape
HP announced its BladeSystem Matrix last month as a converged platform for software, server, storage and networking resources, while IBM confirmed that it will sell Brocade's network switches as an OEM. Both organizations are adopting end-to-end data center solutions that include networking as a core component. On the other hand, the incumbent networking leader, Cisco, is expanding its data center presence with its UCS. Cisco is betting on the transformation of the data center model from physical to virtual, and integrating closely with VMware's vSphere to optimize a virtualized architecture.

The industry press and blogs broadly branded HP's and IBM's announcements as retaliation for Cisco's intrusion on their server turf, questioning whether Cisco even knows what it is getting into. The UCS platform, though, is in my opinion not simply another server, but rather a new category of equipment. Unlike existing rackmount and blade servers that are designed for the physical world, UCS was built from the ground up as a hosting platform for virtual infrastructure.

Cisco's relationship with VMware
Three years ago, Cisco began development of UCS as part of a long-term architectural strategy that it hopes will "unleash the power of virtualization." Its increasingly close partnership with VMware reflects a shared data center virtualization vision and strategy. Two years ago, Cisco purchased $150 million of VMware stock from EMC and gained a seat on the board. The previous year, it had invested $70 million to purchase 80% of a company co-founded by Ed Bugnion, who was also the co-founder and former CTO of VMware, leading to the development of the virtualization enhancing Nexus family of switches.

The two industry leaders have worked closely in developing technologies such as Cisco's Virtual Network Link (VN-Link), which is incorporated in the VMware vNetwork Distributed Switch and in the Cisco Nexus 1000V virtual switch. VN-Link works in conjunction with VMware vSphere 4 to enable visibility into individual virtual machines.

A hardware-based implementation of VN-Link is included in Cisco's UCS, the culmination of its partnership with VMware. Unveiled in March 2009, UCS works with the Nexus family of switches and 10 GB data center Ethernet to enhance network performance of a virtualized data center while unifying compute, network and storage access. It simplifies the migration to and management of a virtualized data center.

VMware vSphere 4
VMware vSphere 4, which VMware claims is "one of the great software accomplishments of the past 10 years," is the software complement to Cisco's UCS and Nexus hardware products. It enables the performance, reliability, security, management and networking capabilities required to inspire confidence in 100% data center virtualization.

Performance has surpassed that of a physical environment, setting records when running large databases such as Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server and Oracle 11g as virtual machines (VMs). Even highly demanding Web servers and OLTB applications run faster as VMs since they are able to scale linearly with the underlying resources of multicore hosts.

Reliability is extended to all virtual servers without expensive clustering software and hardware. If a primary host fails, vSphere's Fault Tolerance seamlessly cuts over processing of the protected VM to a shadow VM running on an alternate vSphere host. A new shadow VM is then automatically configured to run on another host.

Management capabilities exceed those of a physical environment with a raft of new features, such as hot extension for logical unit numbers, record and replay of VM execution and vCenter-integrated storage VMotion. Increased security options include assigning virtual security to individual VMs without requiring overprovisioned hardware appliances in anticipation of peak workloads. Published application programming interfaces enable integrated solutions at the hypervisor layer from leading security manufactures such as Symantec Corp., McAfee Inc., RSA Security, Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., Trend Micro Inc. and Altor Networks.

Networking capabilities, via the combination of vSphere and Cisco's Nexus 1000V virtual switch -- that enable the application of security and network policies that are VMotion-aware -- remedy gaps inherent in a virtualized infrastructure. Network administrators can aggregate management of all the virtual switches and use the Cisco command line tools in the same way they manage physical switches.

The 100% virtualized data center
Gartner Inc. says that 70% of data centers use virtualization but most have only partially virtualized environments. Some assert that large organizations -- many of which have strict guidelines about what type of applications must remain on physical servers -- will never completely virtualize. And even though smaller shops might eventually reach 100% virtualization, it will be a 10-year roadmap for the majority to get there.

My experience consulting with clients indicates a different scenario. One of our earliest virtualization clients, the Mechanics Bank, presented at VMworld 2005 on how it was on track to save $1.6 million over five years as a result of virtualizing 102 of its 105 production servers. Our 100% virtualization messaging resonates with these kinds of larger organizations, which are starting to embrace the concept of complete virtualization of the data center -- and of desktops as well.

IT decision makers understand that virtualization not only has revolutionized data centers but also is the most effective underlying technology for a successful internal cloud computing initiative. With the integrated support of Cisco, the capabilities of vSphere should provide a catalyst to complete the virtualization process.

Perhaps as much as today's commanding technology leads, the level of virtualization commitment may be a primary differentiator for VMware and Cisco. Cisco's internal IT department, for instance, used UCS to migrate 150 physical servers to VMs over a weekend. VMware has virtualized 97% of its servers and will reach 100% virtualization – including Oracle Real Application Clusters – by June.

In contrast, Microsoft's January 2009 Technical Case Study promotes a goal of 50% internal virtualization and discusses problems in utilizing Hyper-V as an enterprise platform. While IBM and HP are firmly on board with the virtualization bandwagon, the technology represents only a component of their broader data center strategies. Although it may be an unfair comparison regarding commitment level, it's interesting to note that both organizations' server group VPs were present at the vSphere launch in contrast to Cisco CEO, John Chambers, who took the stage to show support.

Cisco's dedication to a fully virtualized data center
Cisco's virtualization commitment is unencumbered by concerns about cannibalizing existing server sales from promoting UCS for hosting VMs. It lacks a large consulting organization such as HP's Electronic Data Systems or IBM's IBM Global Services that generates most of its revenue from providing physical data center-oriented services. Cisco can consequently lead with a virtualization strategy that makes traditional engagements such as physical data center moves far less costly and risky.

The proprietary storage solutions of HP and IBM may not be appropriate for every virtualization environment. Similar to VMware, Cisco is able to vendor-neutral toward storage by enabling it to truly become a function of the network for Fibre Channel, iSCSI and Network File Storage protocols – leaving the decision to the architect as to what will provide best performance for a given environment.

Disclaimer: This article expresses the views of the author and is not endorsed by INX or the manufacturers mentioned.


Steve Kaplan is the vice president of the Data Center Virtualization Practice at INX. Kaplan can be reached at You can also follow Steve on Twitter.

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