Cisco Server Hardware

Cisco UCS B-Series Blade Servers - Cisco

If you're tempted to think of Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) as just another blade server — don't. In fact, if you just want a bunch of blades for your computer room, don't call Cisco — Dell, HP, and IBM all offer simpler and more cost-effective options.

But, if you want an integrated compute farm consisting of blade servers and chassis, Ethernet and Fibre Channel interconnects, and a sophisticated management system, then UCS might be for you.

When Cisco introduced UCS in 2009, based on a 2006 investment in Nuova Systems, everyone had an opinion about Cisco entering the server business. Now that they've had a couple of years to prove their case, we wanted to take a closer look and see whether UCS had lived up to the initial excitement.

We found that for some environments, Cisco has brought a compelling and valuable technology to market. Cisco UCS offers enterprises greater agility and lower deployment and maintenance costs, and is especially attractive in virtualisation environments.

While UCS won't be attractive in some data centers, and won't be cost effective in others, it does have the potential to make life, and computing, easier for data centre managers.


As with any server product, there are lots of ways to configure UCS, including different levels of CPU, memory and storage. Cisco has a 29-page document to help you get it right, and 29 pages are not overkill. To get an idea of what this might cost, we configured two separate systems: one with 40 dual-socket blades, and another with 80 of the same blades.

We picked Intel 5600-series (Westmere-EP) X5675 CPUs, each with six cores running at 3.06 GHz, an expensive but pretty common choice for enterprise virtualization workloads. We also packed in 96GB of memory for each system, and put in only a single small SATA drive for booting, logging and diagnostics.

The list price for the 40 blade system was about $950, 000 ($23, 850 per blade, or $1, 987 per core) and for the 80 blade system about $1, 850, 000 ($22, 980 per blade, or $1, 915 per core). Cisco was quick to remind us that deals of this size are routinely discounted 40% to 50%, taking the totals down to $525, 000 ($13, 117 per blade, or $1, 093 per core) for 40 blades and $1, 011, 000 ($12, 637 per blade, or $1, 053 per core) for the 80 blade system.

We also calculated the "UCS tax, " by comparing the cost of the blades (CPUs, memory, hard drive, network cards) and non-UCS networking alternatives against the total cost of the UCS integrated system. We found that UCS has a "tax" of about 15%, meaning that you're paying about 15% more to have the benefits of blade servers and integrated storage/data networking compared to just going do-it-yourself with 1U servers, standalone switches, and, in the case of the 80-blade system, 280 more patch cords.

Under the hood

Cisco UCS has three main components: blade server chassis and blades, a fabric interconnect, which is networking based on Cisco Nexus 5000 switch hardware and software, and a management system resident within the fabric interconnect that controls it all.

The blade server chassis is fairly simple, and there's a competitive selection of blade CPU and memory options. Networking is integrated, not just within the chassis, but between multiple chassis (up to about 20 within a single management domain today).

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