Cisco Seeks An Edge In The Blade Market

Its Unified Computing System was designed with removing I/O bottlenecks in mind.
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Cisco systems has designed its new unified computing system's blade chassis with an eye to removing any I/O bottleneck.

With this offering, Cisco is going after the blade establishment--Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Sun Microsystems. Until recently, Cisco wasn't even in the blade market, and its entrance has other blade vendors paying close attention.

To find an edge in the blade market, Cisco is implementing two protocols in UCS in advance of any public standard, competitors point out. One is its VN-Link, a network interface co-developed with VMware. Cisco has implemented VN-Link in its UCS 6100 Series Fabric Interconnect switching hardware.

VN-Link connects a VM's virtual network interface card to a physical Cisco switch, allowing a virtual machine to be moved from one server to another and have its security and networking policies follow along. Its predecessor in VMware's ESX hypervisor, the vSwitch, did the same thing via software, but if the VM was migrated live, its policies stayed behind.

VMware's vNetwork Distributed Switch works with VN-Link to draw traffic from clusters of ESX hypervisors and route it through a Cisco switch, where it's divided between storage and the network. This helps the hypervisor off-load the time-consuming task of processing network and storage traffic.

VN-Link is exclusive to Cisco, for now. It's been submitted to the IEEE standards body to be turned into a public standard, says Jackie Ross, Cisco's VP of marketing. "We are hopeful that IBM and HP will eventually adopt it," she says.

The other protocol Cisco will need to implement is a version of Fibre Channel over Ethernet. The American National Standards Institute's T11 Committee has accepted Cisco's proposal that the Fibre Channel storage protocol be mapped directly over Ethernet, bypassing the TCP/IP stack, and is working on the standard.

In the meantime, Cisco has implemented its own version. When converged network adapters on the UCS blades feed traffic to the Cisco Fabric Interconnect, Cisco's implementation of Fibre Channel over Ethernet routes the traffic to storage or network devices.

Competitors charge that Cisco is essentially implementing a proprietary version of the standard, and customers will be locked into the Cisco products just as competing ones emerge that use the public standard. "The more value they add, the more proprietary they get," says David Yen, executive VP of Juniper Networks.

Gary Thome, HP's director of strategy and architecture, says that for companies to use Cisco's UCS, they'll need to replace some of their non-Cisco Ethernet infrastructure. That would drive down the savings that can be achieved from virtualization.

Cisco isn't fazed. As a co-author of the standard, it has a good idea what the 1.0 version will look like and will make its implementation consistent with that, Ross says.

Illustration by Sek Leung

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