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Shocker: Cisco UCS hits big in small VMware shops

While Cisco has targeted the largest companies for its Unified Computing System, smaller IT shops have bought UCS as part of their virtualization plans.

Cisco markets its Unified Computing System, or UCS, as a server virtualization platform for the world's largest enterprises and service providers. But, Cisco partners in the field say that many organizations adopting UCS fall squarely in the midmarket, and are relative newcomers to virtualization.

Since Cisco Systems Inc. began shipping UCS in late July, sources say there are only about 70 systems and 700 blades in production, suggesting that they are being deployed in decidedly smaller companies than Cisco has in mind.

One Cisco partner said the number of shipments has a lot to do with the organizational dynamics of large companies.

"In the enterprise, there are too many silos, too many people that have to touch it," the partner said, requesting anonymity because the company also resells Hewlett-Packard Co. equipment.

Or perhaps it's because UCS is such a radical departure from the status quo, said Scott Lowe, national technical lead at ePlus inc., a systems integrator in Herndon, Va.

"I don't know if it's because the enterprise is more conservative or because of established relationships and it's a big deal to upset the apple cart, but we've seen more interest and movement in the midmarket than in the big companies," Lowe said.

Case in point: Tom Becchetti, a Unix and storage engineer at a Fortune 1000 manufacturing firm, said he was intrigued by UCS' architecture -- particularly its extended-memory capabilities-- but that it was too much of a risk to run it in production.

"We could never run something that new," Becchetti said. However, Becchetti did take a two-day class on UCS in view of bringing in a test system to run in the lab.

Another infrastructure architect at a Fortune 500 retailer would not go so far. "I'm struggling to see what the benefits are over what we are doing today," he said. The infrastructure architect oversees about 50 VMware ESX hosts running largely on IBM hardware. "I don't see anybody too excited about this and rushing to purchase."

Midsized businesses have another view
It's a very different story in smaller shops, which see UCS as a way to dramatically and easily ramp up their infrastructure, especially when they're about to expand their VMware environment, the partners said.

Take Benchmark Hospitality International, a resort management firm headquartered in Woodlands, Texas, that went live with UCS in October as part of a project to centralize IT operations away from individual resorts, and into a central data center.

Compared with traditional blade servers, UCS has a lot to recommend it, said Matt Mock, the IT manager at the firm. "The versatility, the [extended] RAM, the efficiency, and the heating and cooling," are pluses, he said. Add to that list better high availability thanks to the stateless design of the Cisco blades, and UCS Manager, which provides a single point of management for all the hardware in the system.

The UCS Manager, in particular, held special appeal to Benchmark. "Being small, the UCS might benefit us even more because we don't have a large team. Between UCS Manager and vSphere [vCenter], we can manage all that stuff with just a couple of guys."

But at first, Mock was concerned that UCS was out of the company's reach.

"We went in thinking that it was going to be too much for us – financially and in terms of setup -- but when we looked at it, we realized that this is something we can do even if we don't buy 10 chassis," he said.

Of course, on a per-blade basis, Cisco UCS comes at a 15% to 20% premium compared with comparable servers. That comes from the redundant UCS 6100 Series Fabric Interconnects required for installation. However, a single Fabric Interconnect can connect up to 320 blades, and the initial investment can be recouped fairly fast -- around five chassis, said the anonymous partner.

Benchmark's Mock said that even only two chassis and 10 blades in their environment, Cisco's quote for UCS was "very competitive."

And if the organization plans on upgrading its networking equipment to 10 Gigabit Ethernet and/or Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), the Cisco UCS price premium is relatively easy to justify, said Lowe.

"They're going to be buying new hardware anyway," Lowe said. "They are either going to have to buy all new NICs [network interface cards], or they can buy this system which already has that in it," he said.

Some integration partners said price analysis of UCS versus other hardware is a red herring. Cisco builds in a deeper discount into its higher list price for partners, said one value-added reseller that who handles both Cisco and HP hardware.. The Cisco discount is 40% compared to 20 to 25% for roughly equivalent HP hardware. Factoring that in makes Cisco UCS more competitive with competitive offerings than many would think.

Barbara Darrow contributed to this story.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at

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