Cisco readies rack servers for the holidays

Hitting that Q4 launch date

Back in early June, server wannabe Cisco Systems launched its C-Series rack-based x64 servers, companions to the B-Series blade servers that came out in March as part of its "California" Unified Computing System.

Cisco got its first taste of the trials and tribulations of the server racket when the B-Series blades shipped later than expected (the high-end B blade is only shipping now, when the blades were due at the end of June, and the low-end blade didn't start shipping until late July), and therefore Cisco put a more conservative Q4 launch date on the C-Series boxes so it could nail the target.

Cisco's server competitors are sure to get a chuckle out of this. But they may not be laughing so much if the memory extender technology embedded in some of the B-Series blades and C-Series racks takes off, and there are some good technical and economic reasons why that memory tech might do just that.

In case you can't memorize entire server product lines, Cisco has three rack servers, all of them using Intel's Xeon 5500 processors. The C200-M1 is a two-socket 1U box with the standard twelve DDR3 main memory slots that such a Xeon 5500 server offers, supporting up to 96 GB of main memory using 8 GB DIMMs. This server has two PCI-Express 2.0 slots and room for four 3.5-inch SAS or SATA drives. This entry rack box, we learn today, will begin shipping in November and carries a suggested street price of $2,589 in a base configuration. (Prices will vary by channel partner, since Cisco is only suggesting what the retail price should be.)

The C210-M1 is a 2U rack box with two sockets that tops out at 96 GB of main memory (again using 8 GB DIMMs), but has five PCI-Express slots and room for up to sixteen 2.5-inch SAS or SATA disks. This machine will also start shipping in November, and has a base street price of $3,309, according to Cisco.

The C250-M1 rack server is the one to watch. This 2U box sacrifices some of the disk capacity in the C210-M1 (it only has room for eight 2.5-inch drives) and instead quadruples the number of DDR3 memory slots to 48, driving up the maximum memory capacity for this machine to 384 GB using 8 GB DIMMs. The C250-M1 includes a memory-expansion ASIC created by the Nuova Systems, a company Cisco bought a majority stake in back in August 2006 and which has also helped develop the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) guts in the Nexus line of switches and their counterparts in the UCS box. Anyway, the C250-M1, we now know, will ship in December and will have a base suggested price of $10,339.

That's quite a premium for a base 2U server with only two processor sockets, but when you consider that a top-end standard 2U Xeon 5500 server has only 18 memory slots and tops out at 144 GB using 8 GB DIMMs, Cisco has a big advantage with its memory extension ASIC. Customers deploying virtualized servers are not running out of processor threads or cores so much as running out of main memory, and if you want to be honest about it, IT shops often upgrade to new servers with new processors not because they need more or faster processors, but because they need more main memory for their applications.

And the established server makers have been perfectly fine with all this, since the memory ceiling keeps some customers moving up to bigger (and more profitable) boxes, or at least more modern ones with the same number of sockets every few years.

Paul Durzan, director of product management for the Server Access and Virtualization Group, who has been around the server racket for a long time, thinks Cisco has nailed this one. Prices for 8 GB memory are a lot higher than twice that of 4 GB memory. On Cisco's B-Series blades, DDR3 memory modules come in two speeds, 1.07 GHz and 1.33 GHz.

The 2 GB DDR3 modules cost $189 at 1.07 GHz and $205 at 1.33 GHz modules; the 4 GB modules cost either $355 or $375 a pop, respectively. But an 8 GB module running at 1.07 GHz costs a stunning $1,857. (Presumably the C-Series racks use the same memory and the modules have the same price. Cisco has not released memory pricing yet.)

Every server maker is facing down those memory prices, and very few IT shops are buying 8 GB DIMMs because they are crazy expensive. But with the memory extension ASIC, the C250-M1 can use 2 GB or 4 GB DIMMs and offer close to or more main memory than other rack server makers can do using 8 GB modules.

Durzan says it costs his competitors in the 2U, two-socket server space $20,310 to put 96 GB into a machine, but Cisco can do it for $5,760 using 2 GB DIMMs. On a machine requiring 144 GB, Cisco's competitors have to charge $30,510, but Cisco can use 4 GB DIMMs and charge only $8,420. Cisco can also deliver 192 GB for $10,992 (which other server makers peddling Xeon 5500 boxes cannot do) and can, if need be, deliver 384 GB using 8 GB DIMMs for a whopping $60,720. (The figures in the comparisons suggest that Cisco has recently dropped its memory prices.)

In addition to announcing the impending shipment of the C-Series rack servers, Cisco also announced that the B250-M1 blade is starting to ship. The B250-M1 is a full-width horizontal blade that slides into the California chassis and which offers the same 384 GB maximum memory as the C250-M1. This blade has room for two small disks and is a two-socket box that has mezzanine cards for Cisco's virtual interface card (more on that in a second), a plain vanilla 10 GE adapter, or converged network adapters sporting FCoE from Emulex or QLogic. Anyway, the base B250-M1 blade is going to start shipping this month, and has a suggested retail price of $7,300.

The B200-M1 half-width blade server tops out at 96 GB and has been shipping since the end of July.

The other interesting new gadget announced by Cisco today is the virtual interface card, or VIC for short. This is a converged network adapter that supports up to 128 virtual network interfaces (vNICs) on the C-Series version of the card, which plugs into a PCI-Express 2.0 x16 slot, and up to 64 vNICs on the mezzanine card that plugs into the B-Series blades. The card has two 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports, which are virtualized in the hardware and which interfaces with the Nexus 1000V virtual switch, which runs in a VMware ESX Server virtual machine.

Because the virtualization is done in the network hardware and not in the virtual switch, called vSwitch, embedded inside the ESX Server hypervisor, the VIC offers faster network performance and can host more than 50 virtual machines with their multiple virtual network interfaces. The PCI-Express version of the VIC will ship in December and will cost $799. The price on the mezzanine card variant of the VIC was not available at press time.

One last thing. Right now, it is not possible to use the C-Series rack servers in conjunction with the UCS box, which has the system and network management software converged into the UCS 6100 switch. (The UCS 6100 is a rejiggered version of the Nexus 5000 top-of-rack converged 10 GE switch.) But sometime in the first half of 2010, Cisco is going to allow the C-Series racks to plug into the UCS system.

Until then, customers have to use C-Series racks servers as they would any other such machine, using a variety of in-band and out-of-band system management tools and KVM switches, and perhaps plugging them into Nexus 5000 switches to at least converge network and storage links into the server.

Bootnote: This story originally reported that the C-Series rack servers were running late when it fact that have hit their Q4 launch date. ®

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