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Keep Rocking that Blade Server Boat

I’m a big AC/DC fan.  While this certainly dates me to some degree, and may alienate me to the smooth jazz crowd,  it pertains to the story I will share about the Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS). 

There is a lot of buzz  going around now about UCS, but I am not going to spend time here talking about server vendors competing for market share.  The real story is  about an industry long overdue for innovation and the customers who demand it.   The story starts several years ago when a very large bet was placed by some gutsy people at Cisco. A team was dispatched to undertake the daunting task of designing a system that really answered the emerging needs of the data center and, long story short, in 2009 UCS was born.  

At this point in server history, the industry offered customers several similar blade offerings which largely conformed to the same old basic layout.   We’ve all heard a thousand times how these designs delivered us from the evils of ballooning power and cooling costs, scarce data center floor space and cabling insanity.   In reality, they were just a packaging evolution that crammed complexity into a smaller box, which you could then replicate 10U at a time throughout your data center.  These designs also created new challenges such as, “who owns the switches in this d@mn thing?” 

Cisco seized the opportunity to approach customers with a revolutionary approach that went far beyond the mechanicals, offering capabilities that tackled some of the trickiest problems in the data center – the ones that couldn’t be fixed with nifty fans.  The list of breakthrough innovations was long.  Virtualization awareness, bare metal abstraction, self-integration, programmability, unified management control planes, role based administration.   On and on and on.  The UCS NDA presentation sessions were long and exhausting just for the sheer volume of crazy new ideas.  You had to bring in lunch.

Fast forward to present day and this is the key statistic that gives me pause:  the UCS customer count is 5400 and growing.  Why is this remarkable?  If choosing a vendor to supply rack servers is akin to speed dating, then choosing a supplier for blade servers is more like getting married, because components from different vendors are not interchangeable. Reaping the benefits of converged infrastructure requires commitment from an IT shop – and from the person charged with deciding which way to go.  By electing to deploy a particular blade architecture, customers place significant trust in that partner to supply a technology roadmap that will meet their needs for several years to come.

So in 2009 and 2010, customers were presented with a revolutionary architecture. But let’s be honest, it was very high on promise and low on track record.   It’s commonly held that IT professionals are a necessarily conservative lot. Many could easily have shrugged off Cisco’s science experiment and concluded “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”  Or HP.  Or Dell.  The IT pros could have kept doing things the same old way.

But some didn’t do that.  Some broke ranks with convention and chose to throw in their lot with the innovators.  They had the audacity to say to everyone around them: “we need to buy UCS, because there really is something better here.”  You can be certain many of them heard from colleagues, management, and the antibodies:  “Servers, from Cisco? Are you nuts?”  But they persisted.  They believed.  They wanted a better tool for the job.  They wanted a Unified Computing System, not just a blade server.  Over the past two years, thousands of these innovators put their reputations, and arguably their badges, on the line in the quest to take their IT practice and their business to a better place.   

And that, to me, is remarkable.   5,400 customers and counting.  These people have helped create a market transition.   On behalf of all the UCS innovators here at Cisco, to you, the customers who rocked the blade server boat:  we salute you!  …. And for those about to rock, we salute you too.

Looking back on 2009 – The Future of Cisco UCS

With all the news over the last few days regarding the continuing growth of Cisco UCS, sometimes it worth taking a step back to look at how we got here. For me, I took a look at a blog post I wrote in March 2009 (pre-FCS), and it’s interesting to see how much mindset shifting has happened in such a short period of time.

A couple of important things should jump out at you:

  • Cisco UCS is a simpler, more powerful way of building Data Center (or Cloud) infrastructure.
  • While change can be hard, a change to Cisco UCS doesn’t have to be difficult for your organization or your IT staff.
  • The short, medium and long-term vision for Cisco UCS (even from an outsider’s point of view) was clear back in 2009, well before we laid out Cisco’s strategy to evolve the Data Center of the future.
  • Even as server technology has evolved over the past two years, the core UCS architecture focus on automation has continued to differentiate the product.
  • No company has greater experience in helping customers transition through technology and business shifts, as is evident by the diagram above. In today’s confusing IT environment, businesses look to technology partners they can trust to help them through transitions and deliver solutions that are ahead of the curve.

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Cisco servers? They said UCS would never succeed…

Two years ago, we started something that many in the industry said was crazy.  We delivered a new system that united compute, network, storage access and virtualization into one cohesive system.  There was rampant speculation that Cisco had taken a crazy path to doom and destruction.

Yet, today I’m proud to share that in just two years, sales of the Unified Computing System are outpacing market growth for x86 blades, and Cisco has become the #3 player worldwide in x86 blade server factory revenue. *

Blades are forecast to be the fastest growing segment of the x86 server market** and market data illustrates the impact of UCS innovation:   businesses worldwide shifted over 10% of the x86 blade market to UCS, and in the U.S. nearly 20%.  Cisco’s rapid growth underscores our leadership in the industry transition to fabric computing and converged infrastructure.  On our most recent earnings call, Cisco reported 5,400 UCS customers and an annualized order run rate of $900M for UCS product orders.

As we began our design efforts, we knew we couldn’t set out to design simply another server.  We heard from our customers that power, management, and server administration costs were sapping their budgets, leaving few resources for innovation.  So we included customers in R&D sessions to help us design from the ground up an evolutionary new system that integrated networking and management:  flexible and scalable enough to handle any workload.  We aimed to create the ideal, programmable, platform for virtualized and cloud environments, and to help solve many of the very real challenges they faced.

Today’s market share news demonstrates our approach is taking hold.  But this is just the beginning:  we are committed to evolving UCS and delivering continued technology innovation.  Thanks for joining us on this journey – we have leagues more innovation ahead of us. ***

* IDC Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker, May 2011

** IDC Q4 CY10 Server Forecaster

*** If you’d like to learn more, below you’ll find additional information on UCS milestones, product awards and customer comments

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Cisco UCS: Customers Win

Two years ago Cisco entered the server market with the introduction of the Unified Computing System.  Our competitors met the move with skepticism, blank stares and questions around Cisco’s market strategy.  Our customers wondered what a networking company new about computing.  We didn’t let the naysayers or the doubters distract us.  We continued the hard work of innovation and communicating the architectural superiority of the Unified Computing System.  Soon customers and competitors began to take notice. Read More »

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They Were Wrong About UCS…What Else Are They Wrong About?

As we near the 2nd year anniversary – July 20, 2009 – when we first shipped the Cisco Unified Computing System, we’re having some fun looking at past milestones, sharing success stories, and putting to rest competitive FUD.

Many industry pundits thought Cisco was taking a big leap off a steep cliff when we introduced UCS.  Proving the naysayers wrong is always satisfying, so we offer this fun video entitled: “They said it couldn’t be done”– bad predictions throughout history. We hope you’ll enjoy this and see how Cisco’s Unified Computing System fits into that mix.

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