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Cisco launches new servers and switches

Cisco’s new offerings include blade and rack servers incorporating Intel’s Xeon 7500 processor, and supporting the company’s FEXlink switching fabric extension architecture. Cisco also unveiled two new Nexus fabric extenders supporting speeds above and below Gigabit Ethernet; an 8Gbps fixed configuration MDS FibreChannel SAN switch; and an appliance for provisioning services to virtual machines.

The sum of the parts indicates Cisco’s intention to play in virtually every facet of data center IT – not just the network and not just virtualization, analysts say.

“The targeting is the big news,” says Jonathan Eunice of Illuminata. “Cisco got into the server business with very narrow targeting: [CEO John] Chambers said, we’re not really after the server business, we’re after the virtualization business. This announcement changes that. [Cisco is] going after any workload, virtual or non-virtual. The specificity is gone.”

This means Cisco will compete more directly with data center server incumbents IBM, HP and Dell. But the company is still looking to differentiate itself by targeting “high-value” sales of server complexes instead of single, standalone servers, Eunice says; and Cisco is still stressing overall data center consolidation, virtualization and automation.

“Even though they’re relaxing their targeting, they’re still very much going for the high-value workload and they’re going for the infrastructure-by-the-ton (sale),” Eunice says. “They don’t want to sell you one; they want to sell in volume for a very standardized kind of infrastructure.”

In that vein, Cisco rolled out two new UCS blade and rack servers: the B440 M1 and the C460 M1. Both are based on Intel’s Xeon 7500 processor and both – like the other switching and storage access components of UCS now do – support Cisco’s FEXlink architecture for increased performance, bandwidth and access to other resources in the data center.

FEXlink extends the switching fabric of a data center – the mesh of bandwidth configured from multiple core, end of row and top of rack switches — closer to the servers and server racks themselves. This results in a 4x increase in server bandwidth, or 160Gbps per blade, Cisco says. It also allows the blades to harness 8Gbps uplinks to FibreChannel switches, increasing bandwidth to storage resources by 50%, and support more virtual interfaces per NIC, the company says.

This, combined with the new processors, allow the B440 M1 and C460 M1 to support a fourfold increase in compute capacity, making UCS a more general purpose data center physical workload workhorse – not just one optimized for virtual workloads, analysts say.

The B440 M1 and C460 M1 will be available this summer. Cisco claims to have at least 400 customers to date for the platform, and expects $1 billion in revenue this year. But analysts note that demand seems to be lukewarm and that deployments are still mostly trial – not production.

“I think it’s still in the kicking the tires phase,” Eunice says. “Cisco is not a traditional vendor in the server space. This is really not even through the first full year of shipment. They have not disclosed a long list of massive sale, whereas you go to HP or IBM they have tons of references for any size sale.”

To extend the market appeal of FEXlink, meanwhile, Cisco introduced two new Nexus 2000 fabric extenders scaling above and below the 2148T Gigabit Ethernet version unveiled in January, 2009. The Nexus 2232 supports 32 10Gbps Ethernet ports and can extend the FibreChannel over Ethernet capabilities of the Nexus 5000 switch down to the server rack; the 2248 is a 48-port 10/100Mbps Ethernet configuration of the line. Cisco also unveiled a fabric extender transceiver module intended to lower the per port price points of the fabric extenders – down to about $300 per 10Gbps port, Cisco says.

For pure FibreChannel deployments, Cisco unveiled the MDS 9148 SAN switch. It supports 48 8Gbps FibreChannel ports in a 1 RU footprint. It is intended as a complement to the existing 8Gbps FibreChannel modules for the chassis-based MDS 9500 SAN switch.

Analysts say the density of the 9148 in that configuration is impressive, but that Cisco is late to the 8Gbps FibreChannel party, which Cisco previously acknowledged.

The MDS 9148 will be available from Cisco partners this quarter.

Cisco also rolled a dedicated appliance for provisioning virtual switching service to virtual machines. The Nexus 1010 hosts virtual services, such as the Nexus 1000V virtual switch, to ease installation and bestow “ownership” of virtual services to the network administrator instead of the server administrator. The Nexus 1010 also supports network analysis down to the virtual machine layer.

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