Cisco's Bold Blade Server Gambit

Cisco has a chance to leverage virtualization, observers say, allowing it to steal turf from other players.

Cisco's big Unified Computing System (UCS) announcement Monday was long on buzz words and promises. In the space of 90 minutes, Cisco chief John Chambers and an impressive lineup of CEOs from around the industry waxed eloquently over a news announcement that lacked key details like pricing and exact hardware specs.

Most of what uncovered last month has come true: the company is building blade servers designed for virtualization, using next-generation Nehalem processors, except Cisco didn't say which one.

There sat both Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) CEO Paul Otellini and Senior Vice President Pat Gelsinger, praising a Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) product that contains an Intel part that hasn't even been formally announced. Intel would not confirm or deny that the blades will come with the Nehalem-EP processor, which will be released under the Xeon X5570 brand and part name. Rumors peg a formal Intel announcement to March 30.

Cisco did provide more specifics about the UCS in an interview with after the press event, though pricing, the exact amount of memory and choice of Nehalem processor have yet to be revealed.

The Cisco blades come in a 6U chassis, not 4U as originally believed, with eight blades per chassis as originally reported. Management software will handle up to 40 chassis, thus 320 blades total, all the while making the many blades appear as a single system to the administrator.

Cisco hasn't said how much memory will be included, but sources tell it will be 384GB. That's three times as much as the 128GB max found on current blade servers. The company would only say there would be a vast amount of memory per unit.

The one thing there won't be a lot of is ports. Each blade will use PCI Express connectors from the blade to the fabric extender. These fabric extenders connect to a switch, which looks like a Nexus 5000 switch and resides in the chassis. There will be two models of switches with either 20 or 40 ports, according to Dante Malagrino, director of engineering in the server access and virtualization business unit at Cisco.

This eliminates the need for multiple ports as seen on the backs of other blade server chassis. Usually the back side of a blade chassis has up to eight ports for Ethernet, Fibre Channel, a storage area network (SAN) and/or server-attached SCSI (SAS). The UCS chassis has just two ports, and that's for redundancy purposes.

All the interconnects from the blade to the network go over a single wire to the Unified Fabric architecture. No more need for host bus adapters or fibre cables. "From a cost perspective, it means a lot fewer cables," Malagrino told "The cost of cables in a datacenter can be as high as 15 to 20 percent [of overall expenses]."

Cisco has deployed the UCS in one facility for testing and reduced the amount of cabling needed by 50 percent, Malagrino added.

Don't call it a blade

During the announcement, Cisco went out of its way to avoid product specifics and didn't make any product declarations. At the same time, it had a long list of partners it said were vital to launch such an endeavor. But notable by their absence were longtime Cisco partners IBM, HP and Dell, the top three blade makers.

"You can think of this as a blade or a network. It will be shipped as a system and deployed as a system," said Rob Lloyd, senior vice president of U.S., Canada and Japan operations at Cisco. "That's why we don't think we are competing on a blade platform but on a new form factor to enable our customers to deploy quickly."

"Call it what you want, it's still going to shake up the blade market," said Liam McGlynn, senior analyst for systems management at Enterprise Management Associates. "They're going to drastically reduce the amount of cabling, they're going to simplify the network, and make it easier to provision virtual images," he told

Where Cisco is really going to win is making the datacenter much denser and at the same time, making it much easier to manage. "If they don't fall down hard and make some huge mistake, I think they are going to capture the number four spot if not the number three spot within a year," said McGlynn.

"They are taking a position in blade servers, doing something really unique to give IT management a really good reason to consider them," he added. "If you are looking at a blade server, are you not going to allow Cisco to do an RFP? Of course you are. Cisco will get in on every blade server RFP in the Fortune 500/Fortune 1000, and Cisco has one of the best marketing departments of any technology firm."

Cisco said it will provide further technical details and pricing in the second calendar quarter of this year when the UCS is expected to be available.

This article was first published on

Tags: virtualization, Dell, blade servers, Cisco, HP

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