Cisco UCS B-Series Review

Its Fabric Interconnects are capable of FC, FCoE and traditional Ethernet, unifying all of the ports.


Valuable Features

After having used, configured and deployed HP and Dell blade systems, I was rather impressed at the time the initial setup of the UCS blade system took to achieve operational status. I was also very impressed with the thorough thought that went into the UCS Manager console and its capabilities as a whole. The conceptual layout of the UCSM was a technical breakthrough and though I tried to not compare it to HP or Dell, it was impossible not to. As our implementations grew and our overall knowledge of the system also grew, there was no turning back. The Cisco UCS team made what used to take hours to configure, setup and deploy, literally take minutes using their Cisco PowerCLI toolkit.

Another aspect of the Cisco UCS system that overshadows that of other technologies is the networking backbone that supports the blades themselves. Cisco created a network switch (control plane) in essence that caries both server traffic and uplink traffic from a single pair of "Fabric Interconnects". These Fabric Interconnects are capable of FC, FCoE and traditional Ethernet, thus making all the ports unified. Acting as the "brains" of the UCS Blade Server system and depending on the version of the Cisco Fabric Interconnects, the pair of fabric interconnects are capable of managing several UCS Blade Chassis and therefore eliminating the need to purchase more switching unnecessarily. The UCS Fabric Interconnects are capable of managing up to 5-10 Blade Chassis with 8 blades per chassis on a single pair of Fabric Interconnects. This is quite a large number of blade servers running from a single pair of Fabric Interconnects.

As you can see, the system scales nicely and the price point drops as your infrastructure grows in size, thus making the initial ROI even more attractive and feasible to make a business case in its favor.

The product’s most valuable features are:

  • FCoE (Fiber Channel over Ethernet)
  • iSCSI services
  • QoS policies
  • Call-home
  • Direct connectivity to SAN Storage
  • Hardware abstraction via Service Profiles
  • Virtual Network Adapters from the Cisco VIC 1240 & 1340 series interfaces
  • Diskless servers (boot from SAN)
  • Reduced server provisioning time
  • RBAC security
  • Manageability or ease of use (single point of management)

Improvements to My Organization

Our company provides solutions that enable our customers to succeed. We thrive on our customers’ ability to see the value in our proposed solutions, so as to bring to their organizations a product that not only solves their current infrastructure constraints, but also resolves those that may arise in the future. We have many partnerships with several vendors in the same technology space, but we have aligned with Cisco due to their excellent blade server products and also their marquee products in the network switch arena.

Today, our business continues to grow with the inclusion of Cisco UCS at every possible opportunity. Now, even more than before, with go-market campaigns that focus on the Cisco UCS, Cisco Nexus and accompanying storage arrays that are supported by Cisco and Cisco UCS.

Room for Improvement

Areas that require improvement are notably small in comparison to other similar products. The UCS system would benefit from less-expensive performance monitoring tools or other third-party tools that perform this function. Surprisingly enough, that is all I can come up with at this time.

Use of Solution

I have used it for five years.

Stability Issues

Stability is a non-issue with Cisco UCS. We have not had any stability issues and to just mention, the Cisco UCS team employs strenuous testing mechanisms of all the UCS components. They provide this for all their firmware updates prior to public release. This is not to say that we've not had any issues, but the issues have been extremely small in comparison to the amount of systems we've deployed. Those issues were quickly identified, rectified and the systems were brought back online in a prompt manner with minimal customer business impact.

Scalability Issues

Cisco UCS scales rather well and while all other systems are online, therefore allowing for in-place upgrades and updates. The system provides great scalability and versatility in regards to system growths and business requirements. You can easily add additional chassis and blade servers with no impact to the systems running in production.

Customer Service and Technical Support

Cisco TAC has been phenomenal in most cases, but we have had a couple of minor instances where the issue took a bit longer than it should have to be resolved. I’d would say we have had a 97% success rate in most of our cases we’ve opened through Cisco TAC, that resolved our issues within the four-hour window we had expected and subscribed to.

Previous Solutions

We previously provided our customers with the HP blade system solution. As we began to become more familiar with the Cisco UCS system and we found it to be just as stable, if not more stable, we therefore shifted our solutions to include Cisco UCS B Series blade systems in lieu of HP. Our decision for this paradigm shift was due to the following factors:

  • Ease of setup
  • Reduced complexity of the network
  • Overall technology solution, support and maintenance
  • Product scalability
  • Performance
  • Cisco’s easy procurement quote, build and ordering process

Initial Setup

Setup for a first-time administrator of UCS will be somewhat time consuming, in the sense that Cisco UCS virtualizes just about every aspect of the hardware. The installation requires the installer/administrator to pre-provision several aspects of the physical hardware in a virtualized sense. As an example, the installer needs to pre-provision MAC addresses, fiber-channel HBA WWNN & WWNP namespaces, KVM address pools, management (KVM) address pools, iSCSI IQN names, iSCSI IP address pools and other items that become part of the “stateless” server attributes. These all become inclusive to the service profile assigned to each server, but are also unique to each.

Once the installer has some familiarity with the Cisco UCS blade server system, the setup phases become much like setting up a traditional rack server(s) and their respective networking in many ways. Just like anything else, once you’ve done it a few times, you become more and more proficient in your abilities to execute in a more expedient manner.

Pricing, Setup Cost and Licensing

The Cisco UCS solution is more expensive in price comparisons with other similar solutions. You will be very happy to have had spent the money upfront and you will look like a rock star to your management and customer base by choosing Cisco UCS blade server system for your infrastructure needs. The pricing and licensing of the Cisco UCS system is comparable to other systems. Overall, your licensing and pricing costs will decrease exponentially over time in comparison to the other vendor branded blade server systems. I would recommend you at least allow yourselves the opportunity to review the Cisco UCS offerings and schedule a demo from your local Cisco UCS product vendor.

Other Solutions Considered

We also evaluated:
- Dell
- HP
- IBM

Other Advice

Find a local Cisco UCS Partner that has a lot of experience setting up Cisco UCS. It does require some infrastructure knowledge for northbound connectivity outside the UCS blade server system and has to be well thought out in terms of how it will integrate into your existing infrastructure. Other than this caveat, the UCS System is easy to install, setup and configure once you have it in your possession.

Our relationship has grown stronger with Cisco due to our own internal decisions to encompass the Cisco hardware where and if at all possible. Our decision to use, sell and deploy Cisco UCS is solely due to all the reasons I’ve already mentioned plus more. Cisco has surely outdone the competition here on this one.

Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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