For the past few days I’ve been working on installing vSphere 5.1 on some Cisco UCS C-Series servers. This was a fresh install in a brand new environment, so I didn’t have to worry much about interrupting current production as I’d just set up the servers (Cisco UCS C220 M3), storage (EMC VNXe 3150), and software (vSphere 5.1) alongside the current environment and then migrate the physical machines to VMs later.

Cisco UCS servers have been building a name for themselves in data centers in the past couple of years.  Many people think they only have the blades to offer, but the UCS C-Series are actually rackmount servers that offer many of the same advantages as blades. The UCS C-Series rackmount servers come at a more SMB-friendly price than the blades (which are known as the B-Series).

The C-Series provides management using the Cisco UCS Integrated Management Controller (CIMC) as shown in Figure A. So, all that needs to be done is to power up your UCS, give it an IP address, and then connect to the CIMC over the network.
Figure A

Click the image to enlarge.

If you’re going to load ESXi on these servers, there are a few things you need to consider when ordering them. For instance, you cannot boot from ESXi using a software RAID controller. So, even if you have some local/internal hard drives and even if you can install the ESXi OS on those hard drives, you will not be able to boot from them if you have the software RAID controller. “VMware ESX/ESXi or any other virtualized environments are not supported for use with the embedded MegaRAID controller. Hypervisors such as Hyper-V, Xen, or KVM are also not supported for use with the embedded MegaRAID controller” (source: Cisco USC C220 Server Installation and Service Guide). If you’re going to use a SAN and you don’t even need the internal hard drives, I recommend using what Cisco calls the Flexible Flash Card. This card is basically an SD card that comes pre-configured with four virtual drives. The first drive is the Cisco UCS Server Configuration Utility, the second is the HV or Hypervisor, the third contains the Cisco Drivers, and the fourth is the Cisco Host Upgrade Utility. The HV drive is where you can install your ESXi server and can be made bootable from within the CIMC. This is much easier than worrying about which kind of RAID controller to get, and I believe it is a little less expensive than getting local drives with a hardware RAID controller.

After you order the proper configuration for what you’re trying to do, the rest falls into place pretty easily. Here is a high level overview of the steps to follow from racking to booting ESXi.

To configure the CIMC:

  1. Install the Flexible Flash Card in the server.
  2. Rack the UCS server and plug a network cable into the management port.
  3. Power it on.
  4. Press F8 to configure the CIMC information (IP address, password, etc.).
  5. From a computer on the same network, open a browser and connect to the CIMC using the IP address assigned in step 3.
  6. Go to Servers | Inventor | Storage to see the Flex Flash Storage Adapters.
  7. Click Configure Operational Profile and then put a check next to the virtual drives you’d like to enable (i.e., the HV drive).

To install ESXi:

  1. Click Launch The KVM from the CIMC.
  2. In the KVM window, click Virtual Media.
  3. Click Add and browse to where you’ve downloaded your Cisco Custom ESXi .iso file and then put a checkmark next to it so it’s mapped as the Virtual CD/DVD.
  4. Click back to the Monitor tab and then click Macros. Select the Ctrl-Alt-Del macro to reboot the server.
  5. Press F6 as the server is rebooting to change the boot device to the Virtual CD/DVD.
  6. Install ESXi as you normally would, but make sure to install it to the HV drive (not to the local drives).
  7. When the install is complete, unmap the Virtual CD/DVD and reboot the server using the macro again.
  8. Press F6 to change the boot device to the HV drive, and it should now boot to the familiar yellow and gray ESXi screen.

This is a lot of information to take in, especially if you’re new to the UCS world. I highly recommend doing some additional reading. To find out more about RAID controllers, please check out this Cisco document. To find out more about the UCS C220 M3, read this Cisco PDF. There’s also plenty out there if you do a search on UCS or unified computing in general. This post is meant to be a high level overview of things to consider in this specific configuration.