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Cisco UCS makes channel inroads

John Moore
Cisco Systems Inc. hopes to beat a path to the data center with its Unified Computing System and at least some channel partners are already taking up the charge.

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The Cisco UCS channel was pretty tiny when the company debuted the product in March 2009. UCS takes an all-in-one approach to the data center, packaging computing, networking, storage and virtualization in a single system. The channel's initial involvement with UCS was somewhat limited and, to some degree, that's been by design. Eighteen months ago, Cisco said it would first go to market "with a select group" of Cisco Data Center specialized partners.

Recent developments, however, suggest a broader channel push behind UCS. Consider the following examples:

  • Earlier this month, Tech Data Corp. unveiled a 6,000-square-foot UCS data center, which the distributor said will let its resellers familiarize themselves with Cisco's technology.
  • Taking the use-what-you-sell approach, Westcon Group Inc. in July said it centralized its data center using UCS and EMC storage area network technology. The distributor offers UCS solutions to its VARs.
  • Cisco made a global push in June, naming Magirus, a German IT solution provider, an authorized configurator for UCS in Europe and working with Ingram Micro to launch Asia's first Cisco Center for Unified Computing. In the U.S., Avnet Technology Solutions and Ingram Micro also ramped up UCS distribution efforts.

"We see this as kind of the break out year for UCS," noted Bill Corbin, executive vice president of global vendor relationships at Westcon. "We really see the pipeline filling up."

Holly Garcia, senior director for vendor management at Ingram Micro U.S., said Cisco's data center initiative, along with services and the small business segment, tops the list of growth opportunities within the distributor's Cisco operation. She believes the momentum will carry through this calendar year and into next. As for hot spots, she cited Cisco's B-Series and C-Series Servers -- the blade and rack-mount server components of UCS -- in combination with Cisco's Nexus switches.

"That is where we are seeing a tremendous amount of growth," she noted.

Building a Cisco UCS channel

Solutions providers report customer interest in UCS, but those potential buyers need to kick the tires.

Vinu Thomas, director for security, networking and voice solutions at Sirius Computer Solutions Inc., said a half dozen customers are now testing UCS in proof-of-concept trials, evaluating the technology alongside solutions from Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

"They want to see how the UCS platform compares," Thomas said. "That is understandable -- it's a new technology."

In an earlier set of head-to-head trials, customers opted for Cisco 75% to 80% of the time, he added.

Alan McDonald, president of AllConnected Inc., a Simi Valley, Calif., VAR, said customers are taking incremental steps with UCS. One customer selected UCS for use in its new disaster recovery site, while it employs Dell blade servers in its main data center. That's one approach customers take to gain experience with UCS before committing the technology to a production data center.

"It's new ground for Cisco," said McDonald about UCS. "Customers are evaluating it in phases."

But getting other resellers to the point of selling UCS hasn't been an easy task for distributors. That UCS remains unchartered territory for most VARs complicates matters.

Chris Swahn, vice president and general manager of Cisco Solutions at Avnet Technology Solutions, Americas, said the reseller population includes "network partners who don't understand the data center and data center partners who don't always engage with Cisco."

Accordingly, distributors have stepped up to the plate with UCS training programs and demo centers.

Swahn said Avnet is helping partners with technical and sales certifications surrounding the Cisco data center. Westcon, meanwhile, has developed a UCS curriculum. A Westcon spokesman said the company will soon announce training offerings.

Network-oriented VARs, in particular, will need to brush up on all things data center.

"A lot of our VAR partners are network centric," Corbin said, noting Westcon's Comstor business unit and its Cisco heritage. "We are helping them explore and migrate into a new revenue stream."

Data-center-oriented VARs may encounter another type of difficulty: ties to data center platforms from IBM, HP and other vendors. Garcia acknowledged that VARs may have strong ties and loyalty when it comes to data center vendors. But Cisco's messaging efforts coupled with UCS' virtualization approach will "sway those who are on the fence," according to Garcia.

"Those willing to take a little more risk ... will be the ones who will ultimately convert," she added.

Who's buying?

Some VARs have contended that customers building data centers anew are the most likely candidates for UCS.
But that sentiment isn't universally held.

"I certainly don't think that Cisco UCS implementations are destined only for
greenfield data center implementations," said Kevin Collins, solutions development manager at Magirus.

Customers, Collins said, can implement UCS into portions of their environment, experience immediate benefits and then "grow the technology into the rest of the data center" when they are ready to do so.

Virtualization fosters incremental adoption of UCS

"Many organizations are pushing through the pilot phase of server virtualization and into higher levels of virtualization with a view to seeing benefits around business and operational enablement," Collins said. "This process drives organizations to refresh their server hardware and allows them to take a phased approach to refreshing their infrastructure, as and when the application or business requirements demand it."

Corbin agreed that UCS can work as a data center upgrade, not just in greenfield deployments.

"Integrating UCS into an existing HP or IBM data center platform is seamless," he said, adding that Cisco's UCS Manager software "keeps everything very clean."

UCS sale is value-add by nature

Prospective UCS customers, regardless of the setting, are sophisticated buyers focused on cost savings or solving a business issue, Swahn said.

"This is value-added selling into a data center environment," he noted.

Thomas said demonstrating that UCS is more than just a straightforward server replacement helps convince customers. UCS's B-Series blade product, in particular, goes beyond the typical x86 box, incorporating virtualization, unified management and a 10 Gigabit Ethernet unified network fabric.

He said Sirius has had the most success with UCS when it positions the technology as an end-to-end solution that can support unified communications, virtual desktop infrastructure or a particular application such as SAP or Oracle.

"It's definitely a solution/application and TCO value proposition, rather than a rip and replace one-blade system with another blade system in order to realize increased speeds and feeds," according to Thomas.

"If you are going to go down the path with Cisco, you have to understand the commitment you have to make," McDonald said. "If you compare it to existing blade technology, it can be a bigger step."

John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer, reachable at jmwriter4@gmail.com.

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