Cisco Unified Computing System Review

For IT managers who must pay attention to both virtual and physical resources, the Cisco UCS system is well worth considering

The Cisco Unified Computing System combines high-end hardware with integrated management software to create a data centre computing platform capable of hosting high-value applications.

Cisco UCS was announced in March and started shipping at the end of July. The system I tested has a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $81,000 (£51,000).

In my exclusive hands-on review of the equipment and software that together compose the Cisco UCS offering, which was conducted on-site at Cisco, I determined that the platform has all the basic ingredients necessary to handle physical and virtual data centre operations. The product platform showed some Version 1.0 flaws, but overall demonstrated that a UCS installation can grow in size without a corresponding increase in management staff or policy complexity.

One vendor – the price of simplification

The trade-off for this simplification is having to buy into a Cisco-only platform on the hardware side. In addition to the server blades and blade chassis, there is a layer of fabric connections that require Cisco gear to complete.

At this time, Cisco uses only Intel Xeon 5500 (“Nehalem”) processors, which means no AMD option. UCS management policy is also heavily tilted toward VMware. That said, I’ve tested several data centre servers based on the Intel Xeon 5500 micro-architecture that have provided outstanding performance, and VMware, especially with the introduction of vSphere 4, continues to set a high bar for virtual machine performance and management.

While my work with the Cisco UCS showed that the management tools provide the building blocks for a tightly controlled data centre environment, implementing Cisco UCS doesn’t require you to scrap management tools that are already likely to be well-established in your data centre. The UCS Manager software is a device manager that uses an XML-based API that provides ample integration with system management tools from BMC, CA, HP, IBM Tivoli and Symantec. I used the UCS Manager’s GUI during my tests, but everything that can be done through the GUI can also be accomplished using the CLI (command line interface).

For IT managers who must pay attention to both virtual and physical resources, the Cisco UCS system is well worth considering. The top-notch hardware components are well-integrated with each other and effectively managed using the Cisco UCS Manager software.

Hardware Components

There is plenty of secret sauce throughout much of the hardware that makes up the Cisco UCS. During my tests, I found the biggest serving in the mezzanine card that makes the connection between the UCS B200-M1 blade server and the UCS 5108 server chassis. Based on technology Cisco gained when it acquired Nuova, the card is able to multiplex LAN, SAN and management traffic, thereby reducing cabling and management complexity.

When I inserted the physical UCS B200-M1 blade server into the chassis, the connection triggered a discovery process that automatically notified the management system of the presence of the newly added hardware.

I’ll come back to the importance of discovery in the software section of this review. For now, it’s enough to say that the physical configuration of the server blade, chassis and Cisco UCS 6120XP Fabric Interconnect was greatly simplified over the separate cabling and management systems in most standard configurations used today.

The mezzanine card is available in three flavours: a Cisco UCS VIC (Virtual Interface Card), a converged network adapter that is compatible with either Emulex or QLogic high-performance storage networking, or a single 10GB Ethernet adapter. My tests were all conducted using mezzanine cards equipped with the converged network adapter. I used both Emulex and QLogic networking systems at various points in my tests.