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Cisco ratchets networking for unified servers

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Cisco Systems did more than launch two new servers earlier this week. It also rejiggered some of the networking gear used in conjunction with its Unified Computing System wares and talked a bit about its customers.

As El Reg previously reported and has been goading Cisco about since last year, the company finally put some four-socket x64 iron out to better compete against the established suppliers. The new B440-M1 blade and C460-M1 rack servers are, of course, based on Intel's "Nehalem-EX" Xeon 7500 processors, which were announced themselves last week.

These new four-socket boxes offer four times the compute capacity in the same footprint as the existing two-socket B-Series blades and C-Series racks based on the Xeon 5500 processors that launched with the original "California" UCS blades in March 2009.

To balance out the extra compute capacity, Cisco had to jack up the bandwidth on the UCS machines. And so Cisco has quadrupled the bandwidth of its Fabric Extender architecture, know as FEXLink, allowing for up to 160 Gb/sec of data to be pumped into and out of the B-Series blades plugged into the chassis. That bandwidth is delivered from the UCS 6100 Fabric Interconnect (essentially a modified Nexus 5000 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch with server and networking management software) to the UCS 2100 Fabric Extenders. Each UCS 5100 chassis has two UCS 2100 fabric extenders, which virtualizes the links between the server blades and their network and storage (the latter using the Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE, protocol).

With the announcements this week, Cisco is also taking the FEXlink architecture to its Nexus 5000 top-of-rack switches. The company announced a second generation of Nexus 2000 fabric extenders, which hang off the Nexus 5000 parent switches, which typically are at the end of the row of machines with the extenders being at the top of racks. Just as in the UCS blades, the combination of the Nexus 5000 switches and the Nexus 2000 fabric extenders allows for all of the network ports to be controlled from a single domain.

The original Nexus 2148 fabric extenders, which according to Paul Durzan, director of product management for the Server Access and Virtualization Group have accounted for over 1 million ports sold since they were announced last year, ran at Gigabit Ethernet speeds. But the Nexus 2248 extenders announced this week allow for 100 Mbit as well as Gigabit ports (up to 576 ports, to be specific), and the Nexus 2232 extenders pull 10 Gigabit Ethernet links - a total of 384 ports - from the Nexus 5000 switches out to non-UCS servers.

Pricing for the new Nexus extenders starts at $9,000 and they will be available during the second quarter. (The goal is to get the price down to $300 per 10GE port). Cisco plans to offer fabric extenders that can hang off the Nexus 7000 core switches, which also support converged network protocols.

The Nexus 5000s now also support what Cisco calls hitless software upgrades, which means the underlying IOS operating system and switching software inside the box can be updated without having to take the switch down.

As Cisco has been hinting, the company is not abandoning Fibre Channel storage switches just because it is hot to trot with FCoE on the Nexus and UCS switches. To that end, Cisco announced the MDS 9148 multilayer fabric switch, which has 48 8 Gb/sec FC ports, will be available in the second quarter to goose links to storage area networks. Cisco has also added 8 Gb/sec FC uplinks to the Nexus 5000 and UCS 6100 switches. The MDS 9500 already supported 8 Gb/sec FC links.

Obviously in response to some customer demands to get their hands on the virtual networking embedded in the UCS system without having to move to the blade boxes, Cisco also took the virtualized Nexus 1000V virtual switch and plunked it onto one of its 1U C200-M1 rack servers and called it the Nexus 1010 Virtual Services Appliance. The appliance also has network analysis software sprinkled on it to make it different. The Nexus 1010 appliance has 32 licenses of the Nexus 1000V software (each running in an ESX Server partition), which are valued at $21.375. The appliance costs $24,995 and will be available this month.

Durzan confirmed that Cisco now has over 400 customers who have ordered UCS systems, and when Cisco says UCS, it means the literal California B-Series blade boxes and the C-Series racks. The reason is that sometime in the second half of 2010, the C-Series racks will be allowed to plug into the UCS Manager software running on the UCS 6100 switch.

Cisco is not talking more about exactly what these customers have bought or whether this number is better or worse that expected, but John Chambers, Cisco's chairman and chief executive officer, is expected to say more on the subject soon, according to Durzan. So far, some 15,000 applications and most of the key operating systems (Microsoft Windows, Oracle Solaris, Novell SUSE Linux, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux) and obviously VMware's ESX Server hypervisor have been validated on the B-Series and C-Series machines. That's not a bad ramp for a product that started shipping in July 2009.

Then again, Sun had a pretty good ramp with its x64 servers a few years back and then it flatlined.

A few more things relating to the UCS Manager embedded in the UCS 6100 switch. Just like the Nexus 5000s use fabric extenders to expand the network but leave it all under the same control domain, the UCS 6100 does the same thing but the UCS Manager software adds server configuration specs to a service profile. This service profile defines everything relevant about the blade, turning it into a stateless piece of hardware as far as the UCS setup is concerned.

If you want to move a workload, you just move its service profile and the new blade looks just like the old one as far as the network is concerned. (The Nexus 1000V handles the virtual switching so the VMs don't get lost.) With this week's tweak of the UCS Manager software, the service profile now includes policies governing power and cooling metrics for the UCS blades in addition to MAC addresses, worldwide names for storage, and policies for storage access.

Cisco says that UCS Manager, thanks to its open APIs, is now integrated with all the major provisioning tools in use today in the data center, including tools from BMC Software, CA, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Symantec, and VMware. Cisco's Developer Network has cooked up an API software development kit so programmers can use UCS iron to validate their tools

Bootnote

When Cisco updated the B-Series blades and C-Series racks with the M2 models (meaning it popped out the Xeon 5500 processors and plunked in the new Xeon 5600s) back in March, it did not release pricing for the machines. Here are the prices, all for minimum configurations: the B200 M2, $3,103; the B250 M2, $8,258; the C200 M2, $1,720; the C210 M2, $2,170; and the C250 M2, $11,114. ®

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