Gestalt IT Tech Field Day – On Cisco and UCS

14 04 2010

There are a couple of words that are high on my list as being the buzzwords for 2010. The previous year brought us things like “green computing”, but the new hip seems to be “federation”, “unification”. And let’s not forget the one that seems to last longer then just one year, it’s the problem solving term “cloud”.

Last Friday (April 9th), I and the rest of the Gestalt IT tech field day delegates were invited by Cisco to get a briefing on Cisco’s Unified Computing System or in short “UCS”. Basically this is Cisco’s view that builds on the notion that we are currently viewing a server as being tied to the application, instead of seeing the server as a resource that allows us to run that application.

Anyone in marketing will know that the next question being asked is “What is your suggestion to change all that?”, and Cisco’s marketing department didn’t disappoint us and tried to answer that question for us. The key, in their opinion, is using a system consisting of building blocks that allow me to to give customers a solution stack.

As the trend can be spotted to go towards commodity hardware, Cisco is following suit by using industry standard servers that are equipped with Intel Xeon processors. Other key elements are a virtualization of services, a focus on automated provisioning and unification of the fabric by means of FCoE.

What this basically means is that you order building blocks from Cisco in the form of blade servers, blade chassis, fabric interconnects and virtual adapters. But instead of connecting this stuff up and expanding my connectivity like I do in a standard scenario, I instead wire my hardware depending on the bandwidth requirements and that’s pretty much it. Once I am done with that, I can assign virtual interfaces as I need them on a per blade basis, which in term removes the hassle of plugging in physical adapters and cabling all that stuff up. In a sense it reminded me of the take that Xsigo offered with their I/O director, but with the difference that Cisco uses FCoE instead of Infiniband, and with Cisco you add the I/O virtualization to a more complete management stack.

The management stack

This is in my opinion the key difference. I can bolt together my own pieces of hardware and use the Xsigo I/O director in combination with VMware and have a similar set-up, but I will be missing out on one important element. A central management utility.

This UCS unified management offers me some advantages that I have not seen from other vendors. I can now tie the properties to the resources that I want, meaning that I can set up properties tied to a blade, but can also tie them to the VM or application running on that blade in form of service profiles. Things like MAC, WWN or QoS profiles are defined inside of these service profiles in an XML format and then applied to my resources as I see fit.

Sounds good, but…..?

There is always a but, that’s something that is almost impossible to avoid. Even though Cisco offers a solution that seems to offer some technical advantages, there are some potential drawbacks.

  • Vendor lock in:
    This is something that is quite easy to see. The benefit of getting everything from one vendor also means that my experience is only as good as the vendors support is in case of trouble. Same thing applies when ordering new hardware and there are unexpected problems somewhere in the ordering/delivery chain
  • The price tag:
    Cisco is not know to be cheap. Some would even say that Cisco is very expensive, and it will all boil down to one thing. Is the investment that I need to make for a UCS solution going to give me the return on invest? And is it going to do that anytime soon? Sure it can reduce my management overhead and complexity, sure it can lower my operational expense, but I want to see something in return for the money I gave Cisco and preferably today, not tomorrow.
  • Interoperability with my existing environment:
    This sort of stuff works great when you are lucky enough to create something new. A new landscape, a new data center or something along those lines. Truth is that usually we will end up adding something new to our existing environment. It’s great that I can manage all of my UCS stack with one management interface. But what about the other stuff? What if I already have other Cisco switches that are not connected to this new UCS landscape? Can I manage those using the built in UCS features? Or is this another thing that my admins have to learn?
  • The fact that UCS is unified does not mean that my company is:
    In smaller companies, you have a couple of sysadmins that do everything. They install hardware, configure the operating system, upload firewall policies to their routers and zone some new storage. So far so good, I’ll give them my new UCS gear and they usually know what goes where and will get going. Now I end up in the enterprise segment where I talk to one department to change my kernel parameters, a different to configure my switch port to auto-negotiate and the third one will check on the WWN of my fibre-channel HBA to see if this is matching to the one configured on the storage side. Now I need to get all of them together to work on creating the service profiles, although not all will be able to work outside of their knowledge silo. The other alternative would be to create a completely new team that just does UCS, but do I want that?

Besides the things that are fairly obvious and not necessarily Cisco’s fault, I think that Cisco was actually one of the first companies to go this way and one of the first to show an actual example of a federated and consolidated solution. Because that is what this is all about, it’s not about offering a piece of hardware, it’s about offering a solution. Initiatives like VCE and VCN only show us that Cisco is moving forward and is actually pushing towards offering complete solution stacks.

My opinion? I like it. I think Cisco have delivered something that is a usable showcase, and although unfortunately I have not been able to actually test it so far, I do really like the potential it offers and the way it was designed. If I ever get the chance to do some testing on a complete UCS stack, I’ll be sure to let you know more, but until then I at least hope that this post has made things a bit clearer and removed some of the questions you might have. And if that’s not the case, leave a comment and I will be sure to ask some more questions on your behalf.

Disclaimer:
The sponsors are each paying their share for this non-profit event. We, the delegates, are not paid to attend. Most of us will take some days off from our regular job to attend. What is paid for us is the flight, something to eat and the stay at a hotel. However as stated in the above post, we are not forced to write about anything that happens during the event, or to only write positive things.





Drobo announces their new Drobo FS

6 04 2010

In November 2009, Data Robotics Inc. released two new products, the Drobo S and the Drobo Elite. Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to a closed session with the folks from Data Robotics as they had some interesting news about a new product they are announcing today called the Drobo FS.

When we visited the Data Robotics premises with the entire Tech Field Day crew last November, one of the biggest gripes about the Drobo was that it relied on the Drobo Share to allow an ethernet connection to the storage presented from my Drobo. The newly introduced Drobo S added an eSATA port, but also didn’t solve this limitation since it wasn’t even compatible to the Drobo Share. As such the Drobo Share was not the worst solution ever, be it for the fact that it connects to the Drobo via a USB 2.0 connection, thus limiting the maximum speed one could achieve when accessing the disks.

Front of the new Drobo FSWell, that part changes today with the introduction of the Drobo FS. Basically this model offers the same amount of drives as the Drobo S, namely a maximum of 5, and exchanges the eSATA port for a gigabit ethernet port. The folks from Data Robotics said that this would mean that you will see an estimated 4x performance improvement when comparing the Drobo FS to the Drobo Share, and you also get the option of single or dual drive redundancy to ensure that no data is lost when one or two drives fail.

Included with all configurations you will receive a CAT 6 ethernet cable, an external power supply (100v-240v) with a fitting power cord for your region, a user guide and quick start card ( in print) and a Drobo resource CD with the Drobo Dashboard application, help files, and electronic documentation. The only thing that will change, depending on your configuration, is the amount of drives that are included with the Drobo FS. You can order the enclosure without any drives at all, this would set you back $699.- (€519,- / £469,-), or you can get the version that includes a total of 10 terabyte of disk space for a total of $1499.- (€1079,- / £969,-).

As with the other Drobo’s you are able to enhance the function of your Drobo with the so called DroboApps. This option will for example allow you to extend the two default protocols (CIFS/SMB and AFP) with additional ones such as NFS. Unfortunately we won’t be seeing iSCSI on this model since according to the guys from Data Robotics they are aiming more towards a file level solution than a block level solution.

Back of the new Drobo FSOne of the newer applications on the Drobo FS is something that caught my eye. This application is targeted towards the private cloud and uses “Oxygen Cloud” as a service provider to provide file access to a shared storage. This means that you can link your Drobo’s together (up to a current limit of 256 Drobo units) and allow these to share their files and shares. This will include options like access control and even features such as remote wipe, but a more complete feature list will follow today’s release.

One feature that was requested by some users hasn’t made it yet. The Drobo dashboard which is used to control the Drobo is still an application that needs to be installed, but Data Robotics is looking at the option of changing this in to something that might be controlled via a browser based interface. However no comments were made regarding a possible release date for such a web interface. What is also under development on is an SDK that will allow the creation of custom DroboApps. Again, a release date was not mentioned in the call.

I will try to get my hands on a review unit and post some tests once I have the chance. Also, I am looking forward to finding out more about the device when I meet the Drobo folks in person later this week during the Gestalt IT Tech Field Days in Boston, so keep your eye on this space for more to come.





Getting ready for the Gestalt IT Tech Field Day 2010 – Boston

30 03 2010

Last year in November I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Gestalt IT Tech Field Day which took place in San Jose. A recap of what happened there can be found here.

Some of you might not be aware of the concept of the tech field days, so let me give you an overview.

The origin might be found in an event that is called “Tech Day” and was initiated by HP. Basically HP invited several bloggers from around the globe and offered them a technical discussion and a more in depth view of several of their products.

Gestalt IT’s Stephen Foskett
was one of the bloggers invited to this event who felt that this might be a good basis for that which now makes up the tech field days.

So, in a nutshell the tech field days brings together a group of independent people that are present in the various social media (think of Twitter, blogs, podcasts, the works) and have a technical background. These good folks then are packed with two days of presentations, discussions and hands on from the sponsors of this event.

You might want to think of this as vendor love, but you wouldn’t be quite right. First of all there is no obligation to communicate about any of the things that are presented to you. What is even more important, when you decide to actually report on what happened, you can give your honest opinion, be it good or bad. Secondly, since the group of people that are invited have a very broad background, the service or products presented will usually get a very broad array of questions fired at them. These will range from very detailed questions that could be about the choice of an algorithm to something more general like for example the value of deduplication in a virtualized environment.

Because we are talking about people with backgrounds in (among others) backgrounds in storage, virtualization, operating systems, hardware, networking and analysts you will find that the questions asked are usually tough on the presenters. These are people that know their stuff and this is also why presenters get the recommendation to not make this in to a marketing show.

This is an event for the community and as such the people who attend are very aware of this fact and looking at the first event, you will see a lot of feedback coming from the people who attend. This is not just limited to the on-site discussions. We had discussions put on video in the pub, there were dynamic conversations in the hotel lobby where the delegates discussed ideas or even took the time to explain concepts to the other delegates who were not experts in the same area.

So, here’s a list of the delegates that will be attending the event:

Jason Boche Boche.net JasonBoche
Carlo Costanzo VMware Info CCostan
David Davis VMwareVideos DavidMDavis
Greg Ferro EtherealMind
Gestalt IT
EtherealMind
Edward Haletky The Virtualization Practice Texiwill
Robin Harris Storage Mojo
ZDNet Storage Bits
StorageMojo
Greg Knieriemen Storage Monkeys
iKnerd
Knieriemen
Simon Long The SLOG
Gestalt IT
SimonLong_
Scott D. Lowe Tech Republic
SearchCIO
ScottDLowe
John Obeto Absolutely Windows JohnObeto
Devang Panchigar StorageNerve
Gestalt IT
StorageNerve
Bas Raayman Technical Diatribe BasRaayman
Simon Seagrave TechHead Kiwi_Si
Matt Simmons Standalone Sysadmin StandaloneSA
Gabrie van Zanten Gabe’s Virtual World GabVirtualWorld

If you check out the profiles of the attendees, you will see that these people should make for an interesting mix. What’s more, I am certain that these folks are able to ask questions that are not always easy to answer.

Cisco Systems
Data Robotics
EMC Corporation
Hewlett-Packard Company
VKernel

So, look for some interesting posts coming from the delegates and on Gestalt IT. You can follow what happens online on Twitter by using the hashtag #TechFieldDay, and be on the lookout for lot’s of interesting things to be coming on April 8th and 9th.

One final thing that should be said.

Disclaimer:
The sponsors are each paying their share for this non-profit event. We, the delegates, are not paid to attend. Most of us will take some days off from our regular job to attend. What is paid for us is the flight, something to eat and the stay at a hotel. However as stated in the above post, we are not forced to write about anything that happens during the event, or to only write positive things.








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