Cisco is unapologetically a hardware company that is flying in the face of the market in which software is eating the world — well, according to software companies.
It has been fashionable of late to software define everything from compute to network and storage. Cisco's core business of networking is under fire from vendors looking to make the network a dumb transport for the software-defined network.
Cisco made a big announcement on Sept. 4, 2014 around its UCS blade platform and gave the industry and customers a glimpse of its strategy that shows the potential of its integrated approach.
The primary purpose of Cisco's event was to announce its new Moonshot-like cartridge based blade system called UCS Mini. Unlike HP's Moonshot server, UCS Mini is built on an Intel platform as opposed to ARM-based processors. Each cartridge is a module that can hold storage, compute, or memory. The compute modules can share any storage and memory located in any module in the chassis.
UCS Mini makes the physical infrastructure extremely flexible. The platform provides an elastic infrastructure for either virtual or physical workloads. With UCS Director, Cisco is showing what the power of a completely integrated solution provides.
The importance of UCS Director in Cisco's data center management strategy moving forward can not be understated. Cisco has expanded the role of UCS Director beyond a management tool for its blade system and into a more expansive data center management tool. Cisco spoke specifically about the ability to manage external cloud workloads and tight integration with Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI).
With the ability to create application policies that enact server and network policy on Cisco hardware, Cisco is showing that its value proposition is in the tight integration of hardware and software. UCS Director aims to give a single pane of glass for managing the infrastructure. A Cloud Management Platform (CMP) such as OpenStack or even VMware's vRealize could leverage UCS Director.
Cisco's approach is in contrast to vendors such as VMware that take a hardware-agnostic approach. Virtualization-focused data center management solutions look to create an abstracted data center. In theory, the data center can be designed independently of the underlay as long as the underlay meets a minimum hardware requirement. An abstracted approach creates a portable data center design that can run on top of any physical data center or cloud. At least this is the theory.
Cisco is a hardware-first company. UCS Director with cloud management capability highlights how Cisco will continue to be hardware first while integrating with a software-defined world. Cisco argues that the data center is much too complicated just to add cloud-like functionality to virtual workloads. The combined management that UCS Director provides to ACI, UCS, and external cloud looks to offer complete end-to-end management of the data center stack. Of course, the consideration is that most of the stack must be Cisco hardware.
UCS Mini is an interesting take on cartridge-based computing; the approach highlights Cisco's philosophy about enterprise computing. Long term, when you combine the UCS hardware platform with ACI and at some point storage management, Cisco has a compelling vision for the data center — if a customer is willing to be tied to Cisco hardware.
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Keith Townsend is a technology management consultant with more than 15 years of related experience designing, implementing, and managing data center technologies. His areas of expertise include virtualization, networking, and storage solutions for Fortune 500 organizations. He holds a BA in computing and a MS in information technology from DePaul University.