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,  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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Business Drivers for Cloud Infrastructures

There are several business challenges that drive the cloud discussion and cloud infrastructure market.  These business challenges are very different from the technical challenges that are more commonly discussed along with cloud.  It’s key to differentiate between the two because typically only one or the other is relevant to any given audience.  If you’re talking to an engineer something like hardware redundancy is quite relevant, but that same concept isn’t relevant to an end-user or CxO.

For this discussion we’ll focus on Business drivers for cloud and save technical demands for a later time.  While thinking about business demands you’ll want to put the data center as a whole in perspective from a business standpoint.  Put on a CxO hat for a minute and decide what data center means to you.  If you’re thinking like many CxO’s you’re thinking of the data center as a cost center, not much different from the cost of paying the lease on a building, or paying taxes.  It’s a necessary expense of doing business.

Recently this has been very true, for instance the business needs a way to communicate more quickly than the typed memo so they invest in an email system, the email system is a cost no different from the paper and ink required for the memos.  This wasn’t always the case, originally Information Technology (IT) was a competitive advantage, remember way back when not everybody had a data center infrastructure?  Back then building a server or network for a business application gave you an edge, lately it’s more of a keeping up with the Jones’s, who by the way are very hard to keep up with.  That brings us to our first business driver for cloud:

Competitive Advantage: The ability to do something, better, faster, or at lower cost than the competition.

Applying that to the cloud: If my competition is thinking/building their IT infrastructure in the traditional methods and paying the price for it what can I do to improve on that?

Now let’s look for some other business drivers, and lets grab the easy ones (‘low hanging fruit.’)  Nearly every business on earth has one common goal, ‘grow the business.’  There are few if any businesses that hit a certain size and say ‘This is just right, let’s stop right here!.’  That only works for Goldilocks.  So then to put this in simple terms let’s assume all businesses want the ability to ‘scale.’  Now that seems easy enough but let’s take that idea one step further: in a good economy I may want to scale out (grow), in a bad economy I may want to scale in (focus on core competencies.)  With that in mind let’s move on to our next business objective:

Ability to scale the business (out and in):  Being able to deploy business applications on demand and retire them when needs change.

Applying that to the cloud: I need to bring new business initiatives online quickly and decommission non-profitable initiatives on-demand.

So now we have two business drivers, and while there are many we don’t have time for a comprehensive list.  Let’s look for one more that is another nearly ubiquitous driver.  In most companies globally, private or publicly traded, there is one major focus and that is profit.  Profit is what can be applied to the owner’s pocket or increase the share value.  Profit is what’s left over after all of the business costs.  What’s an easy way to increase profit?  Reduce cost.

Reduce Costs:  Reducing the amount spent to run the business.  If the goal is increasing profits then costs must be reduced without sacrificing revenue (total amount of money received by a company for goods or services sold.)

Applying that to the cloud: I need to reduce IT overhead without sacrificing business revenue.

So three of the major business drivers that push the various cloud initiatives are: Competitive Advantage, Ability to scale, and Reduction in cost.  These are the real reasons people are looking to cloud architectures of all shapes and sizes in order to redesign the way IT is done.

The most important concept is that cloud is retooling the way we think of IT.  If you think in terms of ‘How can I improve upon the way I run IT now’ you’ll miss the mark.  In order to gain the maximum benefits from cloud infrastructures you need to think ‘What am I trying to do and what’s the best way to do that.’

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