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The improbable rise of Cisco UCS servers

Small and medium-sized businesses appear to love Cisco UCS, said Patrick Hubbard. So does this mean convergence is finally succeeding?

This year, Cisco Live had a number of surprises. Some were overt, like John Chambers' sign-off keynote, while others were more subtle, like the general gagging of VMware. But I'm an in-the-trenches admin, and while I'm not completely immune to vendor hype, I tend to form opinions based on conversations with other IT administrators about what they're actually using. So, the biggest surprise for me was a tipping point in the adoption of Cisco's unified computing system (UCS) -- small to medium businesses love it. It's not the "systems nerds," but rather our tenured network brethren that are buying racks full of Cisco UCS servers.

Now you may be saying, "Harrumph. UCS underpins our extensive Vblock architecture. What are you prattling on about?" Ok, perhaps not "harrumph," but UCS has been a no-brainer for large data center operators for years. They were early with Cisco Nexus, and it makes great sense for them versus roll-your-own racks of Dell and HP gear and fiddling about with Fibre Channel and a dozen other non-converged technologies. But those aren't the operators I'm talking about. Instead, Cisco UCS servers are making significant inroads in even small IT organizations with four to five racks. And there's a lot of green for Cisco in that very long tail of SMBs.

Instead, UCS is making significant inroads in even small IT organizations with four to five racks.

As usual, this year's Cisco Live NOC was identifiable by stacks of redundant gear, nicely loomed, heavily fault-tolerant and topped with a bright orange Gigamon box for contrast. Although nobody retweeted my "A little Nexus never hurt anybody" missive that featured a pic of the twin Nexus 7004s -- in retrospect, it was an awful tweet -- I did talk to an interesting recent UCS convert. And that conversation was repeated a dozen times over.

Cisco UCS servers winning converts in exotic -- and not so exotic -- locales

It would seem that Cisco UCS servers are a huge hit in Jamaica, particularly in Jamaican government data centers, including distributed satellite campuses. These centers have been, like everyone else, Dell and HP customers going back to the early days of VMware certification and marketing-affixed bezel stickers. But recently, they began migrating VM systems to UCS as part of standard hardware refresh cycles. I've had several SolarWinds customers tell me the same thing, but at this year's Cisco Live, I started asking a specific set of questions in every conversation. And, at least to an engineer, the answers were almost always the same. Read these with Jamaican, Southern, Boston or SoCal accents, if you like, for full effect:

Q: "Isn't UCS more expensive than using commodity hardware and doing it yourself?"

A: "Yes, but it's more versatile a year after we installed it."

Q: "But what does Cisco know about compute boxes?"

A: "No idea, but it doesn't break."

Q: "But you're the network guy; why are you recommending compute hardware?"

A: "Because the (director, VP, CIO) trusts me, and it makes my life easier on the networking side."

And that last answer is perhaps the most interesting. It says to me that service concentration and infrastructure convergence is making its way down into even SMB IT departments -- it's putting the same pressures on admins there as in large data centers -- and that generalist administrators, even in teams of two to three, react to the same messaging from Cisco. Maybe it's as simple as going with the brand you know while they adopt new technologies. But I like to think what's really happening is the sophistication and skills of all network admins are growing, and convergence-targeted services are succeeding.

Chambers painted a pretty bleak picture of the future for organizations that don't fully embrace new technologies, and he implied the same for engineers who don't move past traditional architectures. On the horizon are Open Compute/OpenStack/CoreOS/et al., which will drive their own re-imaginings of data center architecture. UCS may be a 2015 bellwether, signaling that admins know change is coming and they're eager to get onboard. And five years from now, we'll know if Cisco remains in the space, or if Cisco UCS servers were simply the first step in a transition that led to open infrastructure and the cloud.

Next Steps

Cisco UCS gives convergence a makeover

Convergence moves to mid-market

This was last published in July 2015

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