Cisco Unified Computing System Value: A Customer’s Perspective

For those who do not know me, I’ve been blogging since April 2010.  My primary subject has been Cisco UCS and everything around it.  Now, when I say “everything around it”, I really mean “everything around it as it pertains to my organization”.  If you want to read a lot, you can check out my blog, http://itvirtuality.wordpress.com.  Be sure to start with the early April postings.  However, I am going to summarize how we came to purchase Cisco UCS, what our business drivers were, and what my current impressions of the product after being in production for a bit over 90 days.

Some history:  My organization exclusively used rack mounts until a friend of a C-level executive suggested we go blade.  It was a fair suggestion.  The only reason we’ve stayed rack mount so long is that the dollar savings just wasn’t there.  We own our real estate; we are the power company, etc.   All those areas where it is easy to quantify dollar savings either just don’t exist for us, or they aren’t significant.

So we started down the road of researching blades.  In the beginning, blades were scary to us.  There were so many different options to configure that it was a bit numbing.  It was at this juncture that we decided to look around and see if there was something else in the market that could simplify things for us.  It just happens that the press was still writing about Cisco UCS so naturally we homed in on it.

It wasn’t love at first sight.  We are not a Cisco shop, it was a new product, and we were a bit dubious on some of the claims.  So we did some serious research into it.  I personally read the Project California book, all the published manuals and tech-notes available at that time, and more.  I did the same for HP.  Just to be sure we were doing our due diligence, we were asked to consider IBM and a few others.  After about four months of research, we put together a technical specifications sheet just to see what the differences were.  Then we listed out all our pain points, strategic direction, and business challenges/opportunities and finally scored each vendor’s offerings in regards to the aforementioned items.  In almost every case, Cisco UCS came out on top.

Our first major comparison was price.  Believe it not; based on our 5yr estimates, Cisco was the most cost-effective.  Part of what made UCS the price leader was its affects on our data center.  Pretty much a cable once type of deal.  To top it off, we did not (and will not for the foreseeable future) need to purchase any additional SAN or network ports.  By choosing any of the other blade brands, I would have needed to purchase additional ports.

Once we completed a cost analysis, we focused on our pain points.  The top two were cable management and complexity.  We (meaning my team) hate cabling and managing those cables.  We are server administrators, not cable administrators.  Moving, adding, or removing a server means at least an extra hour of work undoing nicely bundled cables in the server cabinets and data center cable trays, tracing the appropriate cable (we don’t trust labels 100%), and then cleaning up.  We also have to ensure that we have cables of various lengths in stock so we can accommodate changes fairly quickly.  Otherwise, we have to order the appropriate lengths.  With UCS, just run the cables once and be done with it.

As for complexity, with UCS one pretty much does the bulk of the management through a single interface and at one device level (fabric interconnects).  If we went with HP, we would need to manage the blade, manage the SAN switch in the chassis, manage the network switch in the chassis, etc.  If your shop is already understaffed and overworked, why add more complexity and/or work into the environment?

On to strategic initiatives…A major strategic initiative of ours requires multi-tenancy support.  We envision ourselves are being service providers to other government entities in our area.  We arguably have the best data center around in our area (as far as local governments compare).  In the last two years we have upgraded our PDUs, UPS/Batteries, Air Conditioning, and physical security systems.  While not perfect, we found the RBAC capabilities of UCS to be ahead of the others.

A second major initiative focuses on DR.  We are in the process of building out a DR site.  Once completed, we will be able to replicate our UCS configuration (Service Profiles and such) and data over to the DR site.  Not only will we have a DR site, having a mirror UCS configuration will provide for a nice dev environment.

So now that I have been in production for a while now, what do I think of UCS?  Overall, I am happy.  I haven’t had any outages related to UCS.  Performance has been better than expected and the system gets easier to use as time goes by.  Like all new systems, you just need to get used to it.

Support has generally been excellent.  I use the word “generally” because I have noticed that sometimes a tech will give direction that will solve the issue at hand, but that direction may cause other problems.  It’s as if the technicians don’t always see the “big picture”.  Once we inform the tech that we are not so sure about the direction, a new solution will be provided that does the trick.

So what hasn’t been perfect?  Integrating into our environment was not easy.  I mentioned early on that we are not a Cisco shop.  This had ramifications in network design that we were not aware of, but we believed that the UCS product was the right way to go and redesigned part of our network to accommodate it.

We have also opened up a number of tech support tickets for errors that ended up being cosmetic only.  In other words, we were not having real problems, just erroneous errors being reported.  Most of these have been fixed in subsequent firmware upgrades.

A caveat to would be buyers: I think Cisco oversells some of the capabilities.  For example, Cisco markets that one set of fabric interconnects can support up to forty chassis.  While there may be a few customers who can do this, I am not so sure that this is a supported configuration.  Go read the current release notes and you will see that only fourteen chassis are currently supported.  The forty is a future feature and each major firmware release ups the number of chassis supported.

The same can also be said for the much ballyhooed Palo adapter.  Cisco throws around the capability to provision up to 128 vNICs.  The real number right now is 58 and it is based on the number of cables that are used to connect the chassis IOM to the fabric interconnect.  If you use two cables per IOM, you are limited to 28 vNICs.  Again, the 128 is a future feature.

Given all that we now know, all that we have gone through, all that has occurred…I would not hesitate to purchase UCS again.  I think it is a great system that has clearly been designed to overcome today’s data center challenges (cabling, cooling, etc).  It’s a system that has been designed to grow, both in features and capacity, without major modifications.  And it is a system designed for the future..

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