Entering into a new competitive segment, especially one dominated by major players with well-staked out turf, requires a level of hyperbole, dramatic positioning and a differentiable product. Cisco has certainly achieved all this and more in the first two years of shipment of its UCS product, and shows no signs of fatigue to date.
However, Cisco’s announcement this week that it is now part of Microsoft’s Fast Track Data Warehouse and Fast Track OLTP program is a sign that UCS is also entering the mainstream of enterprise technology. The Microsoft Fast Track program, offering a set of reference architectures, system specification and sizing guides for both common usage scenarios for Microsoft SQL Server, is not new, nor is it in any way unique to Cisco. Fast Track includes Dell, HP, IBM, and Bull. The fact that Cisco will now get equal billing from Microsoft in this program is significant – it is the beginning of the transition from emerging fringe to mainstream , and an endorsement to anyone in the infrastructure business that Cisco is now appearing on the same stage as the major incumbents.
Will this represent a breakthrough revenue opportunity for Cisco? Probably not, since Microsoft will be careful not to play favorites and will certainly not risk alienating its major systems partners, but Cisco’s inclusion on this list is another incremental step in becoming a mainstream server supplier. Like the chicken soup that my grandmother used to offer, it can’t hurt.
Egenera, arguably THE pioneer in what the industry is now calling converged infrastructure, has had a hard life. Early to market in 2000 with a solution that was approximately a decade ahead of its time, it offered an elegant abstraction of physical servers into what chief architect Maxim Smith described as “fungible and anonymous” resources connected by software defined virtual networks. Its interface was easy to use, allowing the definition of virtualized networks, NICs, servers with optional failover and pools of spare resources with a fluidity that has taken the rest of the industry almost 10 years to catch up to. Unfortunately this elegant presentation was chained to a completely proprietary hardware architecture, which encumbered the economics of x86 servers with an obsolete network fabric, expensive system controller and physical architecture (but it was the first vendor to include blue lights on its servers). The power of the PanManager software was enough to keep the company alive, but not enough to overcome the economics of the solution and put them on a fast revenue path, especially as emerging competitors began to offer partial equivalents at lower costs. The company is privately held and does not disclose revenues, but Forrester estimates it is still less than $100 M in annual revenues.
In approximately 2006, Egenera began the process of converting its product to a pure software offering capable of running on commodity server hardware and standard Ethernet switches. In subsequent years they have announced distribution arrangements with Fujitsu (an existing partner for their earlier products) and an OEM partnership with Dell, which apparently was not successful, since Dell subsequently purchased Scalent, an emerging software competitor. Despite this, Egenera claims that its software business is growing and has been a factor in the company’s first full year of profitability.
The drum continues to beat for converged infrastructure products, and Dell has given it the latest thump with the introduction of vStart, a pre-integrated environment for VMware. Best thought of as a competitor to VCE, the integrated VMware, Cisco and EMC virtualization stack, vStart combines:
In another token that the movement toward converged infrastructures and vertically integrated solutions is becoming ever more mainstream, HP and Microsoft recently announced a line of specialized appliances that combine integrated hardware, software and pre-packaged software targeting Exchange email, business analytics with Microsoft SharePoint and PowerPivot, and data warehousing with SQL Server. The offerings include:
HP E5000 Messaging System – Microsoft Exchange mailboxes in standard sizes of 500 – 3000 mailboxes. This product incorporates a pair of servers derived from HP's blade family in a new 3U rack enclosure plus storage and Microsoft Exchange software. The product is installed as a turnkey system from HP.
HP Business Decision Appliance – Integrated servers and SQL Server PowerPivot software targeting analytics in midmarket and enterprise groups, tuned for 80 concurrent users. This offering is based on standard HP rack servers and integrated Microsoft software.
HP Enterprise Data Warehouse Appliance – Intended to compete with Oracle Exadata, at least for data warehouse applications, this is targeted at enterprise data warehouses in the 100s of Terabyte range. Like Exadata, it is a massive stack of integrated servers and software, including 13 HP rack servers, 10 of their MSA storage units and integrated Ethernet, Infiniband and FC networking, along with Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 Parallel Data Warehouse software.
On Dec. 2, Oracle announced the next move in its program to integrate its hardware and software assets, with the introduction of Oracle Private Cloud Architecture, an integrated infrastructure stack with Infiniband and/or 10G Ethernet fabric, integrated virtualization, management and servers along with software content, both Oracle’s and customer-supplied. Oracle has rolled out the architecture as a general platform for a variety of cloud environments, along with three specific implementations, Exadata, Exalogic and the new Sunrise Supercluster, as proof points for the architecture.
Exadata has been dealt with extensively in other venues, both inside Forrester and externally, and appears to deliver the goods for I&O groups who require efficient consolidation and maximum performance from an Oracle database environment.
Exalogic is a middleware-targeted companion to the Exadata hardware architecture (or another instantiation of Oracle’s private cloud architecture, depending on how you look at it), presenting an integrated infrastructure stack ready to run either Oracle or third-party apps, although Oracle is positioning it as a Java middleware platform. It consists of the following major components integrated into a single rack:
Oracle x86 or T3-based servers and storage.
Oracle Quad-rate Infiniband switches and the Oracle Solaris gateway, which makes the Infiniband network look like an extension of the enterprise 10G Ethernet environment.
Oracle Linux or Solaris.
Oracle Enterprise Manager Ops Center for management.
I met recently with Cisco’s UCS group in San Jose to get a quick update on sales and maybe some hints about future development. The overall picture is one of rapid growth decoupled from whatever pressures Cisco management has cautioned about in other areas of the business.
Overall, according to recent disclosure by Cisco CEO John Chambers, Cisco’s UCS revenue is growing at a 550% Y/Y growth rate, with the most recent quarterly revenues indicating a $500M run rate (we make that out as about $125M quarterly revenue). This figure does not seem to include the over 4,000 blades used by Cisco IT, nor does it include units being consumed internally by Cisco and subsequently shipped to customers as part of appliances or other Cisco products. Also of note is the fact that it is fiscal Q1 for Cisco, traditionally its weakest quarter, although with an annual growth rate in excess of 500% we would expect that UCS sequential quarters will be marching to a totally different drummer than the overall company numbers.
Historically, the positioning of Dell versus its two major competitors for high-value enterprise business, particularly where it involved complex services and the ability to deliver deeply integrated infrastructure and management stacks, has been as sort of an also ran. Competitors looked at Dell as a price spoiler and a channel for standard storage and networking offerings from its partners, not as a potential threat to the high-ground of being able to deliver complex integrated infrastructure solutions.
This comforting image of Dell as being a glorified box pusher appears to be coming to an end. When my colleague Andrew Reichman recently wrote about Dell’s attempted acquisition of 3Par, it made me take another look at Dell’s recent pattern of investments and the series of announcements they have made around delivering integrated infrastructure with a message and solution offering that looks like it is aimed squarely at HP and IBM's Virtual Fabric.
A quick note on a big announcement today by IBM that is being rolled out as I write this. No, I don't have a crystal ball - my colleague Brad Day and I spent a day in Poughkeepsie in late June for the full scoop - provided under NDA. The announcement is massive, so I'll just lay out the high points and a few of my thoughts on what it means to apps folks. I'll leave the deeper I&O/technical details to Brad and others in subsequent posts and research. My goal here is to get a conversation going here on what it may mean to apps people in your IT shops.
What's in the zEnterprise announcement?
It's a new computing environment that unifies Linux, AIX, and z/OS on a new server complex that includes mainframe servers, x86, and Power7 blades under a single set of management software: the zEnterprise Unified Resource Manager (URM).
A 10 Gb private data network joins the new z server (z196) and zBX - an ensemble that houses racks of x86 and Power7 blades. It also includes an intra-ensemble network that is physically isolated from all networks, switches, and routers - permitting removal of blade firewalls.
One client claims a 12-to-1 reduction in network hops by eliminating blade firewalls.
The z196 permits up to 96 Quad-core 5.02 ghz processors, 80 available for customer use, and 112 blades.
What is the impact on applications people and application-platform choice?
zEnterprise is a monster announcement that heralds a long laundry list of improvements - it would be impossible to cover all of the ramifications in a single blog post; however, a brief glimpse of some of the most notable improvements that affect applications folks include (zEnterprise as compared to z10):
There’s an old adage that the worst running car in the neighborhood belongs to the auto mechanic. Why? Because they like to tinker with it. We as IT pros love building and tinkering with things, too, and at one point we all built our own PC and it probably ran about as well as the mechanic's car down the street.
While the mechanic’s car never ran that well, it wasn’t a reflection on the quality of his work on your car because he drew the line between what he can tinker with and what can sink him as a professional (well, most of the time). IT pros do the same thing. We try not to tinker with computers that will affect our clients or risk the service level agreement we have with them. Yet there is a tinkerer’s mentality in all of us. This mentality is evidenced in our data centers, where the desire to configure our own infrastructure and build out our own best-of-breed solutions has resulted in an overly complex mish-mash of technologies, products and management tools. There’s lots of history behind this mess and lots of good intentions, but nearly everyone wants a cleaner way forward.
In the vendors’ minds, this way forward is clearly one that has more of their stuff inside and the latest thinking here is the new converged infrastructure solutions they are marketing, such as HP’s BladeSystem Matrix and IBM’s CloudBurst. Each of these products is the vendor’s vision of a cleaner, more integrated and more efficient data center. And there’s a lot of truth to this in what they have engineered. The big question is whether you should buy into this vision.