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New Cisco Unified Computing System faces tough sell

Cisco is touting its new Unified Computing System as having faster chips and better integration capabilities, but some IT buyers aren't convinced that they need it now.

As Cisco Systems arms its newest Unified Computing System lineup with faster chips and better integration with third-party systems management, the company must still convince IT buyers that UCS will fit into their existing shops.

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Cisco's latest UCS generation, unveiled Tuesday, incorporates Intel's latest chips and combines, as its predecessor did, the compute server, networking, storage, virtualization and management into one "system."

Compared to the original UCS announced last year, Cisco says the new generation has four times the bandwidth, or up to 160 GBps per blade, four times the compute capacity, 50% more cores, 50% more Fibre Channel bandwidth.

UCS: Good for new data centers, bad for old?

But all the impressive feeds-and-speeds don't necessarily beat easy integration with gear already in place, several VARs said. Users want to make the most of their existing investments not only in hardware but also in management capabilities, they said.

"The downside of UCS is that you have to commit to all the technology in the UCS," said Pete Sclafani, CIO of 6Connect Inc., a provider of managed services to data center customers.

VARs have concern about the pricing structure and customers want to make sure it's worth investing the time and money to get rid of their current management systems, Sclafani said. In this economy, it's especially important for customers to see an immediate return on investment. If that's not clear, then chances are they'll stick with the technology they have.

Cisco executives insist that UCS is as attractive for incremental upgrades into existing data centers as it is for brand-new facilities.

"All our technologies on the compute side have been designed so they interoperate and coexist with existing technologies and products and can be used not only in green field but also in legacy data centers," said Rajan Panchanathan, director of product management for Cisco.

But even they acknowledge feedback from customers concerned about how UCS will fit into existing data centers and that they need to address those worries -- especially since Cisco now competes directly with erstwhile partner Hewlett-Packard Co. in servers. Many customers are loath to trust their compute loads to a brand new server vendor. Some say that HP, which fields its own servers, networking gear, and storage, is even more a one-stop shop than Cisco, if that's what the customer wants.

Cisco: UCS solution still leaves room for VARs

Cisco maintained that despite the all-in-one marketing message, UCS remains a good channel sale even for VARs used to putting together solutions incorporating HP servers, Cisco networking, EMC or other storage and VMware virtualization.

"An integrated system is made up of components, and those components have to be designed for a specific environment. … The VAR still has to go in and do the full design configuration by pulling the separate elements together into one system," said John Growdon, senior director of go-to-market Worldwide Channels for Cisco.

Customers that have green field data centers or are building out a new data center are most likely to see UCS as an attractive option, many said.

"[Sales] really depend on the customer environment. We do have a number of customers who got out early on [the Cisco] Nexus environment, and they're a good fit for UCS. Obviously in a green field, it's a very good fit," said a mid-Atlantic system integrator.

While VARs agree that new data centers are prime targets for Cisco UCS, there are a few other contributing factors that impact the purchasing decision.

"Customers are concerned with the pricing structure. Cisco isn't going to guarantee pricing [with blade purchases]… [customers] want to stick with HP or Dell because they know what to expect," Sclafani said.

But Cisco has done a good job of displacing other network hardware with the Nexus switch. One client went with Dell for servers but with Cisco for switches, Sclafani said. Several VARs said HP's buy of 3Com will help it compete with Cisco in data center networking but that HP networking gear, in general, is seen as more a "wiring closet" than a data center purchase.

The mid-Atlantic VAR, who is affiliated with both HP and Cisco, agreed that Cisco UCS is a tougher sell into existing data center facilities, and that some Cisco gear is a harder sale than other Cisco gear. For example, Cisco's rack server UCS can go into an existing data center more easily than the blade model because the rack doesn't require the Nexus switch," he said.

Whether a customer already runs Cisco networking gear in the data center could be a big factor in the purchasing process. Those shops have already bought into the Cisco data center story at least to some extent, VARs said.

"A lot of customers that already have Cisco technology don't have a problem integrating [UCS]. For customers that don't, they're still choosing to go [to UCS] because of relationships with VMware, NetApp or EMC," said Derek Downs, vice president for Houston-based INX Inc., a Cisco partner.

Tom Becchetti, Unix and storage engineer for a Fortune 1000 manufacturing firm, agreed that it boils down to what a customer already has in-house:

"It all depends on the status of the existing data center. If the existing data center has every service pre-run -- power, cat-6 fibre [cabling], racks -- it would be very costly to rip replace that infrastructure. On the other hand, if you build the infrastructure as you grow, it would be an easy sell."

Becchetti isn't running UCS in production, but has studied up on the technology and plans to test one in the lab.

The addition of the latest Intel chips is hardly a differentiator. Virtually every vendor rushes to bring in the latest X86 chips as soon as possible. And even then, many VARs said the added performance isn't that big a deal anymore. Customers are looking more at ease of integration, management and reliability.

"The [Intel Nehalem-EX] processors are fine for 90% of companies. And the Nehalems that came out in the fall are serving their purpose, so why bother to upgrade now?" Sclafani said.

HP vs. Cisco battle it out in unified computing

HP and Cisco are going for the same data center market where they and their channel partners once collaborated on joint sales of HP servers and Cisco networking. While HP could really use Cisco's networking expertise, Cisco could do much with HP's server technologies. And one VAR noted that the battle is quite similar to when Cisco first went after the IP telephony market. At first, customers complained that they weren't getting the same capabilities that they got from Nortel or Avaya, but then Cisco caught on. The Mid-Atlantic VAR sees Cisco UCS sales trending slightly upward over the past month or so, but it is not at all comparable to the inquiries he gets about the latest HP blades.

Customers are "banging on the door to find out the roadmaps and when they can get HP 5600 and 7500 boxes," he said.

HP, which bills itself as the largest IT provider in the world, obviously has a lot of push behind it. "They're a force in the data center," this VAR said. "They'll get natural demand just for that."

Mark Fontecchio contributed to this report.

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