Cisco UCS at Five Years – Successful Disruption and a New Status-Quo

Richard Fichera

March Madness – Five Years Ago

It was five years ago, March 2009, when Cisco formally announced  “Project California,” its (possibly intentionally) worst-kept secret, as Cisco Unified Computing System. At the time, I was working at Hewlett Packard, and our collective feelings as we realized that Cisco really did intend to challenge us in the server market were a mixed bag. Some of us were amused at their presumption, others were concerned that there might be something there, since we had odd bits and pieces of intelligence about the former Nuova, the Cisco spin-out/spin-in that developed UCS. Most of us were convinced that they would have trouble running a server business at margins we knew would be substantially lower than their margins in their core switch business. Sitting on top of our shiny, still relatively new HP c-Class BladeSystem, which had overtaken IBM’s BladeCenter as the leading blade product, we were collectively unconcerned, as well as puzzled about Cisco’s decision to upset a nice stable arrangement where IBM, HP and Dell sold possibly a Billion dollars’ worth of Cisco gear between them.

Fast Forward

Five years later, HP is still number one in blade server units and revenue, but Cisco appears to be now number two in blades, and closing in on number three world-wide in server sales as well. The numbers are impressive:

·         32,000 net new customers in five years, with 14,000 repeat customers

·         Claimed $2 Billion+ annual run-rate

·         Order growth rate claimed in “mid-30s” range, probably about three times the growth rate of any competing product line.

Lessons Learned

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Intel Bumps up High-End Servers with New Xeon E7 V2 - A Long Awaited and Timely Leap

Richard Fichera

The long draught at the high-end

It’s been a long wait, about four years if memory serves me well, since Intel introduced the Xeon E7, a high-end server CPU targeted at the highest performance per-socket x86, from high-end two socket servers to 8-socket servers with tons of memory and lots of I/O. In the ensuing four years (an eternity in a world where annual product cycles are considered the norm), subsequent generations of lesser Xeons, most recently culminating in the latest generation 22 nm Xeon E5 V2 Ivy Bridge server CPUs, have somewhat diluted the value proposition of the original E7.

So what is the poor high-end server user with really demanding single-image workloads to do? The answer was to wait for the Xeon E7 V2, and at first glance, it appears that the wait was worth it. High-end CPUs take longer to develop than lower-end products, and in my opinion Intel made the right decision to skip the previous generation 22nm Sandy Bridge architecture and go to Ivy Bridge, it’s architectural successor in the Intel “Tick-Tock” cycle of new process, then new architecture.

What was announced?

The announcement was the formal unveiling of the Xeon E7 V2 CPU, available in multiple performance bins with anywhere from 8 to 15 cores per socket. Critical specifications include:

  • Up to 15 cores per socket
  • 24 DIMM slots, allowing up to 1.5 TB of memory with 64 GB DIMMs
  • Approximately 4X I/O bandwidth improvement
  • New RAS features, including low-level memory controller modes optimized for either high-availability or performance mode (BIOS option), enhanced error recovery and soft-error reporting
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Lenovo Buys IBM x86 Server Business

Richard Fichera

Wow, wake up and it’s a whole new world – a central concept of many contemplative belief systems and a daily reality on the computer industry.  I woke up this morning to a pleseant New England day with low single-digit temperatures under a brilliant blue sky, and lo and behold, by the time I got to work, along came the news that Lenovo had acquired IBM’s x86 server business, essentially lock, stock and barrel. For IBM the deal is compelling, given that it has decided to move away from the volume hardware manufacturing business, giving them a long-term source for its needed hardware components, much as they did with PCs and other volume hardware in the past. Lenovo gains a world-class server product line for its existing channel organization that vastly expands its enterprise reach, along with about 7,500 engineering, sales and marketing employees who understand the enterprise server business.

What’s Included

The rumors have been circulating for about a year, but the reality is still pretty impressive – for $2.3 Billion in cash and stock, Lenovo acquired all x86 systems line, including the entire rack and blade line, Flex System, blade networking, and the newer NeXtScale and iDataPlex. In addition, Lenovo will have licensed access to many of the surrounding software and hardware components, including SmartCLoud Entry, Storewize, Director, Platform computing, GPFS, etc.

IBM will purchase hardware on an OEM basis to continue to deliver value-added integrated systems such as Pure Application and Pure Data systems.

What IBM Keeps

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Lenovo Buys IBM x86 Server Business

Richard Fichera

Wow, wake up and it’s a whole new world – a central concept of many contemplative belief systems and a daily reality on the computer industry. I woke up this morning to a pleseant New England day with low single-digit temperatures under a brilliant blue sky, and lo and behold, by the time I got to work, along came the news that Lenovo had acquired IBM’s x86 server business, essentially lock, stock and barrel. For IBM the deal is compelling, given that it has decided to move away from the volume hardware manufacturing business, giving them a long-term source for its needed hardware components, much as they did with PCs and other volume hardware in the past. Lenovo gains a world-class server product line for its existing channel organization that vastly expands its enterprise reach, along with about 7,500 engineering, sales and marketing employees who understand the enterprise server business.

What’s Included

The rumors have been circulating for about a year, but the reality is still pretty impressive – for $2.3 Billion in cash and stock, Lenovo acquired all x86 systems line, including the entire rack and blade line, Flex System, blade networking, and the newer NeXtScale and iDataPlex. In addition, Lenovo will have licensed access to many of the surrounding software and hardware components, including SmartCLoud Entry, Storewize, Director, Platform computing, GPFS, etc.

IBM will purchase hardware on an OEM basis to continue to deliver value-added integrated systems such as Pure Application and Pure Data systems.

What IBM Keeps

IBM will keep its mainframe, Power Systems including its Flex System Power systems, and its storage business, and will both retain and expand its service and integration business, as well as provide support for the new Lenovo server offerings.

What Does it Mean for IBM Customers?

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IBM is First Mover with Disruptive Flash Memory Technology on New x6 Servers

Richard Fichera

This week, IBM announced its new line of x86 servers, and included among the usual incremental product improvements is a performance game-changer called eXFlash. eXFlash is the first commercially available implantation of the MCS architecture announced last year by Diablo Technologies. The MCS architecture, and IBM’s eXFlash offering in particular, allows flash memory to be embedded on the system as close to the CPU as main memory, with latencies substantially lower than any other available flash options, offering better performance at a lower solution cost than other embedded flash solutions. Key aspects of the announcement include:

■  Flash DIMMs offer scalable high performance. Write latency (a critical metric) for IBM eXFlash will be in the 5 to 10 microsecond range, whereas best-of-breed competing mezzanine card and PCIe flash can only offer 15 to 20 microseconds (and external flash storage is slower still). Additionally, since the DIMMs are directly attached to the memory controller, flash I/O does not compete with other I/O on the system I/O hub and PCIe subsystem, improving overall system performance for heavily-loaded systems. Additional benefits include linear performance scalability as the number of DIMMs increase and optional built-in hardware mirroring of DIMM pairs.

■  eXFlash DIMMs are compatible with current software. Part of the magic of MCS flash is that it appears to the OS as a standard block-mode device, so all existing block-mode software will work, including applications, caching and tiering or general storage management software. For IBM users, compatibility with IBM’s storage management and FlashCache Storage Accelerator solutions is guaranteed. Other vendors will face zero to low effort in qualifying their solutions.

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Intel Lays Out Future Data Center Strategy - Serious Focus on Emerging Opportunities

Richard Fichera

Yesterday Intel had a major press and analyst event in San Francisco to talk about their vision for the future of the data center, anchored on what has become in many eyes the virtuous cycle of future infrastructure demand – mobile devices and “the Internet of things” driving cloud resource consumption, which in turn spews out big data which spawns storage and the requirement for yet more computing to analyze it. As usual with these kinds of events from Intel, it was long on serious vision, and strong on strategic positioning but a bit parsimonious on actual future product information with a couple of interesting exceptions.

Content and Core Topics:

No major surprises on the underlying demand-side drivers. The the proliferation of mobile device, the impending Internet of Things and the mountains of big data that they generate will combine to continue to increase demand for cloud-resident infrastructure, particularly servers and storage, both of which present Intel with an opportunity to sell semiconductors. Needless to say, Intel laced their presentations with frequent reminders about who was the king of semiconductor manufacturingJ

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Dell Grabs Enstratius in Cloud Management Land Grab

Dave Bartoletti

Dell just picked up Enstratius for an undisclosed amount today, making the cloud management vendor the latest well-known cloud controller to get snapped up by a big infrastructure or OS vendor. Dell will add Enstratius cloud management capabilities to its existing management suite for converged and cloudy infrastructure, which includes element manager and configuration automator Active System Manager (ASM, the re-named assets acquired with Gale Technologies in November), Quest Foglight performance monitoring, and (maybe) what’s still around from Scalent and DynamicOps.

This is a good move for Dell, but it doesn’t exactly clarify where all these management capabilities will fall out. The current ASM product seems to be a combo of code from the original Scalent acquisition upgraded with the GaleForce product; regardless of what’s in it, though, what it does is discover, configure and deploy physical and virtual converged infrastructure components. A private cloud automation platform, basically. Like all private cloud management stacks, it does rapid template-based provisioning and workflow orchestration. But it doesn’t provision apps or provision to public or open-source cloud stacks. That’s where Enstratius comes in.

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Is IBM Selling Its Server Business To Lenovo?

Richard Fichera

 

The industry is abuzz with speculation that IBM will sell its x86 server business to Lenovo. As usual, neither party is talking publicly, but at this point I’d give it a better than even chance, since usually these kind of rumors tend to be based on leaks of real discussions as opposed to being completely delusional fantasies. Usually.

So the obvious question then becomes “Huh?”, or, slightly more eloquently stated, “Why would they do something like that?”. Aside from the possibility that this might all be fantasy, two explanations come to mind:

1. IBM is crazy.

2. IBM is not crazy.

Of the two explanations, I’ll have to lean toward the latter, although we might be dealing with a bit of the “Hey, I’m the new CEO and I’m going to do something really dramatic today” syndrome. IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo to the tune of popular disbelief and dire predictions, and it's doing very well today because it transferred its investments and focus to higher margin business, like servers and services. Lenovo makes low-end servers today that it bootstrapped with IBM licensed technology, and IBM is finding it very hard to compete with Lenovo and other low-cost providers. Maybe the margins on its commodity server business have sunk below some critical internal benchmark for return on investment, and it believes that it can get a better return on its money elsewhere.

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The Tablet Market Is Fragmenting Into Subcategories

JP Gownder

In recent research, I have laid out some similarities and differences between tablets and laptops. But the tablet market is growing ever more fragmented, yielding subtleties that aren’t always captured with a simple “PC vs. tablet” dichotomy.  As Infrastructure & Operations (I&O) professionals try to determine the composition of their hardware portfolios, the product offerings themselves are more protean. Just describing the “tablet” space is much harder than it used to be. Today, we’re looking at multiple OSes (iOS, Android, Windows, Blackberry, forked Android), form factors (eReader, tablet, hybrid, convertible, touchscreen laptop), and screen sizes (from 5” phablets and to giant 27” furniture tablets) – not to mention a variety of brands, price points, and applications. If, as rumored, Microsoft were to enter the 7” to 8” space – competing with Google Nexus, Apple iPad Mini, and Kindle Fire HD – we would see even more permutations. Enterprise-specific – some vertically specific – devices are proliferating alongside increased BYO choices for workers.

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HP Shows its Next Generation Blade and Converged Infrastructure – No Revolution, but Strong Evolution

Richard Fichera

With the next major spin of Intel server CPUs due later this year, HP’s customers have been waiting for HP’s next iteration of its core c-Class BladeSystem, which has been on the market for almost 7 years without any major changes to its basic architecture. IBM made a major enhancement to its BladeCenter architecture, replacing it with the new Pure Systems, and Cisco’s offering is new enough that it should last for at least another three years without a major architectural refresh, leaving HP customers to wonder when HP was going to introduce its next blade enclosure, and whether it would be compatible with current products.

At their partner conference this week, HP announced a range of enhancements to its blade product line that on combination represent a strong evolution of the current product while maintaining compatibility with current investments. This positioning is similar to what IBM did with its BladeCenter to BladeCenter-H upgrade, preserving current customer investment and extending the life of the current server and peripheral modules for several more years.

Tech Stuff – What Was Announced

Among the goodies announced on February 19 was an assortment of performance and functionality enhancements, including:

  • Platinum enclosure — The centerpiece of the announcement was the new c7000 Platinum enclosure, which boosts the speed of the midplane signal paths from 10 GHz to 14GHz, for an increase of 40% in raw bandwidth of the critical midplane, across which all of the enclosure I/O travels. In addition to the increased bandwidth midplane, the new enclosure incorporates location aware sensors and also doubles the available storage bandwidth.
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