Industry watchers like me have long wondered when Cisco will transform itself into a full-line IT infrastructure vendor. This strategy was tipped in 2009 as Cisco barged into the server market with UCS. But one leg of the stool is still missing: Storage remains the province of Cisco partners like EMC and NetApp.
The Rack Endgame
I recently wrote about “The Rack Endgame”, a serious challenge to the enterprise storage status quo in which the current datacenter architecture with centralized networked storage arrays is blown apart by virtualization and distributed storage. It’s worthwhile to read that whole series, but here it is in a nutshell, with special focus on Cisco.
Here’s the Rack Endgame series:
Enterprise storage arrays appeared in the 1990’s as multitudes of smaller computers began to invade the enterprise datacenter. It made sense to centralize storage on a network in the heterogeneous computing environments of the time, and this architecture continues to this day. Both industry stalwarts and scrappy upstarts are focused on building “Jack of all trades” storage arrays that offer performance, capacity, and data management features.
But “do-it-all” arrays are seriously limited at the extremes. They will never offer the performance or scalability of specialized solutions. For this, we need a new dual-system architecture that brings fast flash close to the CPU and keeps scalable capacity at a distance.
This was impractical until now because such a solution would require specialized software running on every connected server. But the advent of virtualization makes it not just possible but downright likely! Already, VMware VSAN can intelligently locate data according to performance and capacity needs. And companies like PernixData and Infinio are building caching solutions that could turn into real storage virtualization layers in the future.
The Evolution of Cisco UCS
Cisco UCS was born into this environment. UCS was designed primarily to be a homogenous compute platform for the enterprise. All of the design decisions that went into “Project California” pointed to a future where server hardware was a universal blank slate for semi-portable (dare we say “containerized”?) operating system images. This is why UCS blades have no “personality” but what is defined at run-time by the UCS manager.
And UCS has been wildly successful. Although established companies like Dell and HP remain strong, UCS has become the standard-bearer for modern server hardware. It is the MacBook to the PC laptop world. And Cisco keeps innovating, with a UCS Mini and modular M-Series announced this month.
Until recently, Cisco has had no real storage solution. Apart from internal drive bays and PCIe flash cards, UCS required an enterprise storage array to function. But Cisco’s acquisition of Whiptail (now called Invicta) was a quiet step in a new direction.
Invicta gives Cisco a top-of-rack flash solution very much along the lines I described in my Rack Endgame article. It’s very fast but not all that scalable; a turbocharger, not an engine. This, and the fact that it’s not yet ready for production use, has led many to wonder what Cisco is up to. But I believe their plan was tipped at the recent UCS Grand Slam event.
Along with the UCS Mini and M-Series, Cisco introduced the fourth-generation UCS servers. And one in particular caught my eye: The UCS C3160 is a “Rack Storage Server” with two processors and up to 360 TB of hard disk storage in 4U. Cisco suggests that the C3160 could be used in media and analytics applications, but I see it differently.
The All-Cisco Rack
Imagine a rack of Cisco UCS servers – they could be B-Series blade servers, C-Series rack servers or M-Series modular servers. Now slap an Invicta flash unit on the top and a C3160 on the bottom, along with some Nexus switches for connectivity. Suddenly we have an all-Cisco rack!
This do-it-all rack could be used for VMware vSphere, with VSAN deciding whether to put data on the Invicta or ESX-running C3160. UCS-loving SimpliVity would be a perfect fit, too. It could run OpenStack or CloudStack, with the C3160 running Swift or Ceph. Or maybe the C3160 runs NexentaStor or Microsoft Windows Server!
Cisco would surely be happy with any such configuration, but I doubt EMC would be pleased. After all, UCS and Nexus make up “the other half” of the vBlocks offered by joint venture VCE. Once an all-Cisco rack is ready for production, why would Cisco spend much effort promoting cross-company solutions when they can keep all the money in-house?
The all-Cisco rack doesn’t mean EMC, NetApp, or even VCE is doomed. But a robust converged hardware offering from Cisco would challenge them just like UCS in the server space. And it’s clever, too, since Cisco still has plausible deniability. They can reassure EMC that the C3160 is just another UCS server and Foskett (and the customers) are inventing competition where none is intended. But the gloves will come off as soon as Cisco brings in-house a storage platform or converged compute software to run on this all-Cisco rack. Will it be Nexenta? SimpliVity? Or perhaps a homegrown offering leveraging OpenStack? Time will tell!