Where Is Cisco UCS Headed?

UCS-Grand-Slam-Social_Baseball2_v1-300x300If you happen to read my writing(as infrequent as it is these days), you know that I am a networking focused person. I live my day to day within the walls of routing, switching, wireless, and other “network centric” platforms and technologies. The days of Unix, Windows, and other generalist type administration duties are gone for me. However, like many IT professionals, I have a strong desire to understand all of the different areas in order to enhance my capabilities within the networking space. If you wish to implement IT in any particular silo, it helps to understand all the different pieces. With that in mind, I happily accepted my invite to the Cisco UCS Grand Slam event in New York City a few weeks ago. My involvement with Cisco UCS usually stops at the fabric interconnect point, and occasionally down into the virtual networking piece as well.

I mention that to state that while I understand the moving parts within storage, compute, and virtualization, I DON’T understand it at the level of people who live in those worlds full time. In light of that, I have to point out that I may be completely wrong in my predictions or thoughts around this particular launch. Then again, I may be 100% right in where this is all headed. Time will tell, and right or wrong, this will be available on the Internet until I am shamed into the void of abandoned blogs, or offered a very lucrative gig shilling for one of the billion flash storage companies.

UCS Mini

Coming into the Cisco UCS Grand Slam event, I knew about the UCS mini. Everyone knew about this. A fabric interconnect(FIC) for UCS that fits into the Cisco 5108 blade chassis. Great for smaller customers that didn’t want to go all in and buy the larger 6200 series FICs for a handful of servers. Not so great for customers that needed a ton of UCS servers and already had the larger 6200 series FICs.

Hooray! The mid market customer finally got some UCS love apart from owning a handful of C series UCS boxes. The use case was put forth for a large branch office, and since I live a lot of the time in healthcare environments, I can see that use case in hospitals. However, I still think it is a larger opportunity in the data center of smaller companies.

Here is a video I shot of one of these 6300 series FICs at the event. I can tell you that this little guy was not light, but then again, they had to pack a fair amount of technology in this smaller form factor.

But Wait, There’s More

A couple of interesting things were also announced at the event.

First, there was the M4308 modular server chassis. It is a 2U box that can hold up to 8 M142 compute cartridges. Each cartridge is actually 2 different servers. Well, it is really just a processor and memory. The M4308 uses shared network(2x40Gbps uplinks) and storage(up to 4 SSDs). Cisco has effectively decoupled everything from the server itself other than processor and memory. Why would you want to do something like this you ask? Well, the way I see it, it gives you the potential for a lot of distributed computing power without the typical expense involved in buying regular servers. Maybe you don’t need anything but a lot of processing horsepower for a particular application. Maybe you just need small servers to run a bunch of smaller applications that require their own dedicated box. It could be used for any number of things I suppose.

M4308 Front Picture

M4308 Front

 

 

 

 

 

 

M4308 – Rear Portion Open

M4308 Open Rear

 

 

 

 

 

 

M4308 Rear Picture Showing Drive Bays and Network Connections

M4308 Rear

 

 

 

 
 

 

M142 Compute Cartridge

M142 Front

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

M142 Cartridge Opened

M142 Open

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second, the C3160 server was announced. Basically, this is a big storage box. It can hold up to 360TB of storage. It has 64 drive bays. While Cisco isn’t the first to release a server with tons of storage space like this, it does make their compute offering a little more complete.

C3160 Server

CiscoUCS3160

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is That All There Is?

Okay, so we have some new hardware that gives us more options. That’s always a good thing, right? Other, more qualified server/storage/virtualization folks, would have a lot more content regarding these products, and you can find their posts linked at the bottom of this page. I would normally end things here. A basic piece about the new UCS offerings.

But then I read this piece from Stephen Foskett, where he discusses virtualized and distributed storage…….

That added some more info to what I had already been pondering in regards to the future of UCS. I also ran across this post from Colin Lynch, and he makes some very interesting statements that caught my eye:

“You need to embrace the concept that UCS is not a Chassis Centric architecture”

“There is no intelligence or hardware switching that goes on inside a UCS Chassis.”

Now consider the rise of solutions like Nutanix and Scale Computing. Consider how they differ from the traditional big storage and big compute silos that we tend to pack into data centers. They converge it all down into nodes that intelligently link together. It’s a clever way to provide somewhat similar services, but with the ability to scale out linearly in both storage and compute within the same box/vendor.

Here’s where I am going to take a wild guess. I think that in the coming years, Cisco will be able to provide the compute, storage, and networking, but in a variety of different building block sizes. From the compute perspective, they already have an interesting array of products. From the networking side within the data center, they have already demonstrated their ability to provide a variety of platforms to suit every need from 1Gbps up to 100Gbps. The missing piece is the storage aspect. Maybe that is where Invicta(Whiptail) comes in. If Stephen is right, distributed storage will be the future. Instead of very large centralized storage platforms, we’ll see lots of smaller platforms spread out across the data center.

As long as the distributed systems can provide the same or similar type of services that the large centralized storage platforms have, I think it can work. Since I am not a storage guy by trade, I have to assume that there are features and capabilities that the larger centralized storage platforms possess that would be hard for Cisco to duplicate with UCS. This would be similar to how larger chassis switches such as the Nexus 7000’s offer things that smaller 1RU switches typically do not. If I were to assume that less than a quarter of storage implementations utilized the largest arrays available, that leaves a considerable chunk of the storage market that can be served with a highly distributed model. I just made that 25% number up. I have no idea what the real number is of organizations that use something like VMAX from EMC. Even if that number is 50%, that is still a lot of customers that don’t need the largest storage platform.

Closing Thoughts

I’ll admit that there is a LOT that I don’t understand when it comes to storage and compute. However, I think at a basic level, we can all understand what the various pieces of the puzzle are within the data center when it comes to infrastructure. If there is something to be gained by using smaller components, while managing it all centrally to where it isn’t that much different than having massive compute, storage, and network blocks, then how bad can that be? I suppose it all hinges on the performance required for the business to function properly. Perhaps, if I look at this from an SDN perspective, it will make more sense. If I can get the same reliability and performance from a bunch of distributed switches throughout a data center and manage them centrally(not just NOC type monitoring, but distributed forwarding intelligence), as opposed to nailing up all 10/40/100Gbps connections to a monster chassis, how is that a bad thing? It should be cheaper, and it should allow for more flexibility.

If I were Cisco, I would want to own it all from the network port to the hardware the data lives on and is processed on. Provided it could all be managed and provisioned from a central location, that is a compelling offer. Vendor interoperability is a good thing, but outside of a single vendor, the single pane of glass concept is relatively unrealized.

I’ll end this post here, because I have started to ramble, and I am not entirely sure if I have made a whole lot of sense. What I am certain of is that Cisco has started creeping closer into the storage vendor’s territory. Will they end up making another acquisition in the storage world soon, or will the Whiptail acquisition provide them with as much of the storage piece as they want? I have no idea. What I do know is that they have managed to make a dent in the compute/server market with UCS in just a few short years. It seems to me that storage is the logical next step for them. If storage as we know it is changing into a more distributed model, I wouldn’t rule out some additional offerings from them. I have no firm insider information regarding their future plans. Just a hunch.

Disclaimer: My travel, lodging, and food expenses were covered by the Tech Field Day crew(Thanks again!), and I assume that Cisco ultimately footed the bill for my accommodations. I wasn’t asked to write anything in return, and based on the timing of this post(which I haven’t had time to finish until tonight in a hotel room), I can assure you that they have probably given up on me by now if they were expecting something. ;)

Posted in cisco, data center, hardware, storage | 1 Comment

A Training Class Where I Actually Learned Something

brainTL/DR – Canned labs never work for me.

Training for me has always been hit or miss. I have had better luck with in person classes than online training. I realize that everyone learns differently, so I suppose you pick the model that works best for you and hope you get your money’s worth out of it.

Back in June, I had the pleasure of attending the ClearPass Advanced Labs course at the Aruba headquarters out in Sunnyvale, CA. This was not a typical “class”. In fact, every time I referred to it as a “class”, I was reminded by the instructor that it was more of a workshop. The instructor was not there to teach you everything about ClearPass. Their job is to simply function as a proctor and help out when you got stuck on a particular issue. Yes, there was a slide deck, but it was VERY brief and just covered the goals of the day’s activities.

What Made It Different?

In short, the lack of step by step instructions. Many of the training classes I have attended consist of the following:

1. Death by Powerpoint
2. Canned labs

There’s no need to elaborate on the first point since we are probably all familiar with that portion of instruction. It is the second point that I feel the need to expound on.

Canned Labs

You’ve probably seen these. The product covered is beat into your head via numerous slides and then you get to apply what you just learned by doing a lab exercise. The problem I run into is that the exercises are given along with every single click of the mouse and every keystroke. It becomes more of an exercise of: “Can you follow instructions?” I seldom learn from these to the point in which what I am doing actually makes perfect sense. I get no sense of depth in the product and just suffer through each lab exercise until I am done for the day and can go find somewhere to eat my next meal. Sure, I can poke around the product and flip a few knobs here and there, but you basically just wander around aimlessly.

Back To ClearPass

Canned labs do not exist in the Aruba ClearPass Advanced Labs course. There are very minimal instructions given. A few sentences with what needs to be accomplished and that is it. It is up to you and your lab partner to figure out how to accomplish the task. I should point out that you were expected to have some experience with ClearPass prior to attending the course, but the prerequisites could be accomplished without ever having touched ClearPass in a production environment.

To better illustrate the minimal information given, here is a picture of the guidebook for the Aruba ClearPass Essentials course in orange along with the Aruba ClearPass Advanced Labs course in black on top.

CP-AdvancedLabs

 

 

 

 

 

 
Was It Better With Less Information?

Yes! I found myself struggling in certain areas, but was able to work through them with occasional help from the instructor. The benefit was that after a brief period of time, it started to make sense. ClearPass was no longer as daunting as it initially seemed. Don’t get me wrong. It is a VERY deep product with a variety of different ways to accomplish a given task, but as a whole the main pieces began to make a lot more sense. I would not have gotten to that point had every step been written out for me to follow.

If you have ever taken a math class*, you are probably familiar with something along the lines of:

3 + 2x = 15

The astute reader already knows that x=6, but that is because they know how to solve the problem.

(15 – 3)/2 = x

*Note – I was never good at math. It just doesn’t interest me. Please forgive any incorrect logic on my part.

Imagine if you didn’t know that instinctively. You would have had to reason it out. Through enough trial and error, you would eventually reach 6. In that process, you would have figured out exactly how to derive “x” from the given information. You could use the same method in the future and solve the problem much faster. You would have LEARNED, which should be the overall goal of any sort of education.

I realize that developing any sort of training content is not an easy job. Technical content development is even harder. However,  by simply running people through a set list of commands to type, I think the student gets the short end of the stick. They are deprived of the opportunity to explore different approaches to solving a problem. While this doesn’t extend to every aspect of learning(e.g. Landing an airplane has a very specific set of steps that need to be followed in order to avoid crashing.), I think it covers a fair amount of IT work in general.

Closing Thoughts

The ClearPass Advanced Labs course from Aruba was without a doubt the best technical class I have ever taken. In 5 short days, I learned more about that product simply because I was not given all the answers up front. That doesn’t mean I am an expert, or even highly competent with ClearPass. That comes with more experience and exposure to different problems that need solving in that given product. What it does mean is that I returned home knowing a lot more about how it works and the various methods I could use to solve a given problem. 

Consider something like BGP. There are generally multiple ways to influence path selection. While I may use some methods more than others(e.g. prepending, local preference), I am aware of other ways to accomplish the same thing. That didn’t come about because I sat through a bunch of canned labs on BGP and gained immediate insight into how the protocol works. It came about because over the years I have tried various methods and failed. I would have to reassess how to solve the problem another way and try again until I got it right.

Raising kids has taught me that the best way to ensure their success is to let them fail. The exception being safety issues where they could get physically hurt beyond a simple bruise or scrape. If I hold their hand until they are old enough to venture out on their own, they will be woefully unprepared for the world that awaits them.

Your IT staff is no different than my kids, except that they have credit cards and a driver’s license. Don’t hold their hand. Make them work for it. They’ll be better technologists and you as the employer will benefit from their increased knowledge.

If you are involved with ClearPass as an end user, Aruba employee, or Aruba partner, I HIGHLY recommend you send your people to this course. In addition to the massive amount of learning that takes place, if you attend the class at Aruba’s headquarters, they have a really nice cafeteria with a plethora of yummy food. I wish I could eat lunch there every day! That may be due to my love of Asian food though. It is hard to get that out here in Tennessee. :)

As always, I am interested in your comments. What has been your experience with training classes?

Posted in aruba, career, learning, training | 2 Comments

Choosing Sides In Technology

Sometimes There Is Too Much Choice

Sometimes There Is Too Much Choice

I started out the evening writing a post on Aruba ClearPass, but this has been weighing on my mind lately, so I figured Aruba ClearPass can wait.

It seems that the Internet is filled with all sorts of opinions as it relates to all things IT. Shocking, isn’t it? ;)

We squabble over all sorts of technical things that mean a great deal to us as IT folks, but probably not a whole lot to the people who actually benefit from the use of those systems. Yes, I am referring to the end users. What do they care about? They care about their systems working. That’s it. They have their own jobs to worry about. This can be confirmed by the fact that end users almost never call up the IT department or fire off an e-mail unless there is a problem. Consider exhibit A:

1. Does it work? Great. I can do my job. The IT department isn’t even on my mental radar.

2. Is it broken? Uh oh. Now I can’t do my job as effective, or quite possibly, at all. Time to notify IT to get this thing back up and running.

Now, take that same concept and apply it to something you care about other than IT stuff. Do you like getting paid? I sure do. Two times a month, my paycheck is deposited into my bank account. How often do you think I swing by the accounting department to discuss my paycheck? If you guessed almost never, you are correct. As long as the check shows up, I am happy. If the check doesn’t get deposited, you better believe I am going to reach out to the accounting department and ask about it. If I don’t get paid, I am not going to do any work for that company. It’s a pretty simple relationship I have with them. I don’t really care how the money gets into my bank account as long as it gets there on time.

Does The Solution Matter?

This is a semi-loaded question, because it really depends on your angle. Consider these 5 potential angles:

1. Vendor – You ABSOLUTELY think the solution matters. You make your living off of selling your solution. Why would you not think your stuff is the best? To the vendor, there is a wrong way to do things, and there is their way. The right way. Maybe not for every scenario, and a good vendor will tell you when  they are not the right fit for you. I don’t want to make all IT vendors sound like they are soulless corporations out to take all your money. They aren’t. They are made up of people not unlike the people that work for the companies they sell to or partner with. They just chose a side. They’ll root for their team as long as they are a part of that vendor organization. I don’t think most people go to work for vendors hoping they fail. They believe in their message. You’ll find many idealists in the vendor ranks. No problem with that. That’s what it takes to make an impact in the marketplace.

The vendor will be ready to talk you out of every other vendor’s solution but theirs. Maybe that salesperson sitting in front of you isn’t well versed in their competition and can only spout their own talking points. Maybe they are hoping the potential customer isn’t savvy enough to counter their pitch with an informed view of that particular solution segment of the market. Or maybe, the vendor has brought in one of their specialized engineers/evangelists/sales superstar to answer all your questions around the competitor’s solutions. Maybe they do it without stretching the truth at all and just lay it all out there for you the end customer, to decide.

The vendor is in this battle to close the deal. They want the sale. Nothing wrong with that at all. Some do it better than others. Some do it more ethically than others. Some don’t even have to try that hard since their technology is well known and respected.

2. Reseller – The solution MAY matter. It depends on who they sell for. It also depends on whether or not the vendor walked them into this deal. I can tell you that if a vendor walks us into a deal(I work for a reseller), I will do my absolute best to ensure I ONLY pitch their solution(s). The only time I will veer off message is if a customer asks me a very direct question regarding a competitor or about that particular vendor that brought me. I won’t lie. Period. If I don’t know, then I say I don’t know. I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me though and offer up alternate vendors that my company may sell for right in front of the vendor that walked us into the deal. That’s just bad business.

What if a reseller only sells a solution for a single vendor in the segment of IT you are looking in to make a purchase? What solution do you think is going to be pitched? If you guessed the one they sell for, you are correct. Consider something like switching. My company sells for several switching vendors. While I may LIKE other vendors, I am not going to be pitching switches from a vendor I don’t sell for and tell the customer to go to another reseller to make the purchase. Does that seem like I am boxed in? To a certain extent, yes. However, if none of the solutions my company sells for are going to be a fit for that particular customer, I have no problems telling them that. My experience is that most vendors(I’d say 9 out of 10) can solve 90% of the customer’s problems. It’s the corner cases that really involve a lot of head scratching and pondering.

To sum up the reseller, the solution matters if they sell that within that segment of IT. If you were in the market for a new car and went to a Ford dealership, what kind of car do you think they are going to sell you? That’s how business works. They have a select set of product, and their job is to move that product. I will add that provided that product can solve the customer’s problem, there is nothing wrong with that. You cannot be all things to all people. Try it, and you’ll find that you will be good at nothing.

3. Vendor Bigots(Pro) – Some people go all in with a vendor and don’t necessarily even work for that vendor. They exist in the reseller market as well as on the end customer side. No matter what, their first choice is always their favorite vendor. They’ll go to great lengths to ensure their favorite is the vendor of choice. Sometimes they have VERY valid reasons for doing so. Other times, they just like that vendor more than the others. The solution matters to them as long as it is their vendor of choice. All other solutions are inferior in their mind. Again, might be a valid reason based on solid research and experience, or it might be out of sheer stubbornness or ignorance.

4. Vendor Bigots(Con) – Some people hate certain vendors with the fire of a thousand suns. Maybe they had some really bad experiences. Maybe they hate the market leaders(sales numbers). Maybe they hate the small upstarts that are clamoring for any market share they can find. Maybe they are turned off by the arrogance of certain vendors(real or perceived). It could be any number of things. In my experience, the vendor bigots of the “con” persuasion tend to hate the bigger vendors and feel like they are getting ripped off and sold bad technology. They generally have some vague story about a perceived evil that was done to them or their network by the big bad vendor. Might be a valid reason, or might be paranoia.

Note – In my experience, vendor bigots of any persuasion tend to be more on the uninformed side when it comes to alternative view points. I have learned in my almost 20 years of IT that exposure to other vendors is a good thing. For example, I am currently deploying an Aruba Instant solution for a customer and it is my first time working with this technology using more than a single access point. I love it. It just works. It might not have all the features that other solutions have, but for this particular deployment, it meets all of the customer’s needs. Prior to this, I had a few “go-to” vendors for similar solutions, but now my eyes have been opened even more. That isn’t to say that I will always favor Aruba Instant for every similar deployment. It simply means that I can help a customer make a more informed choice. It makes me a better engineer, and it helps any of my company’s customers make a better decision when it comes to this type of technology.

5. The “Just Make It Work” People – These people don’t really care about the logo on the box or software provided it works. That’s all they care about. They may or may not be sensitive to price. If their pain is great enough, price isn’t the most important issue, provided you can stop the 2am phone calls from rousing them from their slumber.

What Is The RIGHT Solution?

The one that works. Period.

While that seems like a pretty straightforward answer, it is a little more complicated than that.

1. Price – As much as I wish it didn’t, price matters.
2. Vendor ecosystem – Is there information available from the vendor on the product in more detail than a data sheet?
3. Supportability – Can my in house/outsourced staff manage this solution, or is it too complicated?
4. Life expectancy - Is the vendor going to be around in a year and will this solution last long enough to meet my needs in the future?

There are probably more variables, but those are the big ones I run across.

What’s Wrong With Preference?

Nothing at all. It is human nature to prefer certain things over others.

Consider the various political rhetoric that is spewed on Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis. Some people have a preference for a particular political party and have their feet in concrete. No matter what, it is always the “other” side that is wrong. If you were to ask some of the zealots out there, they would tell you that they are reasonable. They are open minded. They consider all the variables and amazingly, they are always on the correct side of things. If you could just open your eyes and see things their way, you would be better off. They look in the mirror and see a reasonable and informed person. The “other” side is full of morons and idiots. They are the lemmings. The dummies. The followers. If always falling on one side of the coin makes you think of yourself as “independent”, then you are delusional and arrogant. Probably beyond any sort of help, to be quite honest.

Now take the above rant and apply it to technology. The same person exists, but with an eye towards technology. I have always maintained that the esoteric nature of what we do in IT can breed arrogance. Couple that with a social media platform from which to preach our message and we become convinced that we have the answers to all the questions you may have. If you could just see it our way……

Preference in and of itself isn’t bad. The world would be a very boring place if we all chose the same things all of the time. I find though, that my familiarity with certain solutions breeds preference. That doesn’t mean we make poor choices when we choose solutions we prefer based on our experience, or based on who is signing our paychecks. As long as the solution gets the job done, does it really matter? No. If the customer is happy to pay Cisco to get a datacenter full of Nexus switches, let them. If the customer would rather pay another vendor to use their switches instead of Cisco, let them. It is their network. They will succeed or fail based on their choices.

I have seen quite a few customers make decisions that my company recommended against and be perfectly fine. I have also seen the opposite.

Is This Post Over Yet?

Yes. In summary, the customer will make the decision they feel is best for them. You may not like the decision, but it is theirs to make. Maybe it was uninformed, or maybe it was done after careful consideration of the alternatives.

Additionally, all vendors have very smart people developing and selling solutions to end customers. Resellers and end customers also employ very smart people as well. You won’t always know all the reasons people make the choices they do when it comes to technology. However, if you simply ask them WHY, they may just surprise you. The things you are passionate about when it comes to your solution of choice may not be a big deal to that other person. Or, by engaging them in a professional manner, you may just be able to sway their opinion more in your favor. Technology is always changing. Vendors come and go. Architectures come and go. Understanding WHY you hold a certain opinion will help you more than being stubborn and refusing to admit you may be wrong. We’re all wrong at some point.

Now I am off to go find another knock-down, drag out, technology fight on social media. I may even participate, hoping you will just see it my way. :)

Posted in career, selling | 5 Comments