Alternatives to Cisco's Unified Computing System: HP BladeSystem Matrix and InteliCloud 360

Looking for alternatives to Cisco's Unified Computing System? HP's BladeSystem Matrix has integrated services, while InteliCloud Inc.'s 360 has an innovative chassis design.

Cisco Systems Inc.'s Unified Computing System (UCS) is designed to reduce total cost of ownership, increase productivity with just-in-time provisioning, and has a tight integration of and prepackaging of servers, virtualization and management with converged storage and network I/O.

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However, alternatives do exist. Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co.'s HP BladeSystem Matrix also has a tight integration of servers, virtualization, management, and network and storage I/O. But unlike the Unified Computing System, the HP BladeSystem Matrix allows for a wide range of server blades, a wealth of storage options and has a complete package of integrated services. InteliCloud Inc.'s 360 is another option that has an innovative chassis design, a proactive approach to cooling and flexible server blades.

HP BladeSystem Matrix

Hewlett-Packard has come out with a very competitive response called HP BladeSystem Matrix. Like the Unified Computing System, the Matrix scales to 320 servers with a tight integration of servers, virtualization, management, network and storage I/O. It also utilizes fabric extenders that interconnect the BladeSystem chassis to Fibre Channel (FC) and 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) fabrics.

Unlike the UCS, the Matrix doesn't utilize Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE) and converged network adapters (CNAs) today. But HP does plan on supporting them when the standard is finalized and the market requires it. Instead, Hewlett-Packard supports the current standards of 4 Gbps/8 Gbps FC for storage-area network (SAN) storage I/O and 1 Gbps/10 Gbps Ethernet for networking I/O and iSCSI SAN storage I/O. This may require both FC and Ethernet fabric extenders. HP calls them virtual connects because they appear as multiple servers instead of switches to their respective fabrics. It may also require both a 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps network interface card (NIC) and a 4 Gbps/8 Gbps FC host bus adapter (HBA).

The HP BladeSystem Matrix has several advantages over Cisco's Unified Computing System. The Matrix has a much more granular list of options. Unlike UCS, HP allows for a wide range of server blades from Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc., Intel Corp.'s Xeon (including the Xeon 5500, which is code-named Nehalem) and Itanium, as well as memory and even solid-state drive (SSD) alternatives that can be mixed and matched by requirement. There's also a wealth of storage choices, including HP Enterprise Virtual Arrays (EVAs), LeftHand Networks Inc. (now part of HP), MSA and storage blades. The software options are just as rich, including the bundling of HP Insight Dynamics-VSE and Insight Control software. Finally, Hewlett-Packard bundles a complete package of integrated services, including engagement, deployment and end-to-end project management.

But the Cisco UCS does have some powerful advantages. The virtual switch is uniquely Cisco and solves significant management problems. The converged network and storage I/O on 10 GbE can be appealing even if it is proprietary. Cisco's blade chassis also requires less power and cooling than equivalent HP blade systems. And Cisco has strategically partnered with EMC Corp. and NetApp.

In a competitive situation, Hewlett-Packard should have the advantage when integration is required with legacy systems, especially servers, storage and storage fabrics. But in a "green field" opportunity (where no legacy system integration is required), Cisco will be very competitive.

InteliCloud 360

Quietly cruising beneath the radar is southern California startup InteliCloud and its inventive unified computing system called InteliCloud 360. It has considerably more innovation than Cisco's Unified Computing System and more flexibility than the HP BladeSystem Matrix. The innovation comes from clever packaging, hardware and software.

The InteliCloud 360 is conceptually a data center in a box. It provides comprehensive, end-to-end integration of hardware, software, servers, virtualization, networks and storage, and is designed to scale both up and out.

The hardware innovation starts with the chassis, which isn't typically thought of as an area ripe for innovation. InteliCloud architected the 360 chassis around the Advanced Telecommunications Computing Architecture (AdvancedTCA or ATCA) standard form factors. The firm also took a proactive approach to cooling by implementing intelligent cooling algorithms that utilize a network of thermal sensors and five rear-mounted replaceable fan trays to maximize efficiency.

This allows InteliCloud to put 28 blade slots (14 blade slots in the front and 14 blade slots in the back) in an exceedingly compact 10U, 19-inch wide, 24-inch deep footprint. It's also Network Equipment Business Systems (NEBS) Level 3 compliant, meaning it meets central office standards and can be placed in either a data center or a central office. Each slot is rated up to 40 Gbps line rate (the equivalent of the InfiniBand quad data rate). The forward-facing slots support server blades, storage blades and I/O blades, while rear-facing slots support I/O blades and switch/control blades. All blades are hot swappable.

The server blades are very flexible and can be any mix of 2, 4 or 6 core Intel, 2-4 cores AMD and eight cores Sun Microsystems Inc.'s UltraSPARC T2 processor. Each server blade supports from 8 Gb to 48 Gb of DRAM.

The I/O blades for the InteliCloud 360 are another area that distinguishes the system from Cisco's Unified Computing System and the HP BladeSystem Matrix. The multi-ported I/O blades have local-area network (LAN) interface options to support both 1 GbE and 10 GbE, as well as wide-area network (WAN) options to support OC-3, OC-12, T1, E1 and J1. The I/O blades include advanced rear transition module silicon on the boards enabling load balancing and hot swap.

Each blade switch is multifunctional, supporting up to eight ports of CEE 10 GbE, four ports of 4 Gb FC, plus a 1 GbE port and an RS-232 port. They provide high-speed layer 2/3/4 data path switching and hardware assisted load-balancing capabilities between all the blades.

The storage control module blade provides the control component to InteliCloud's distributed storage architecture. Each storage blade contains on-board solid-state drives for operating system and InteliCloud software components, and supports any combination of SAS, SATA, FC and SSD, as well as 7.2K, 10K and 15K drives. All drives are hot swappable.

The hardware is clever and distinguishes the InteliCloud 360 from Cisco's UCS and HP's BladeSystem Matrix. But it's the software that seems to elevate Cisco and HP to a different class. Both the Cisco Unified Computing System and HP's BladeSystem Matrix are dependent of Citrix Systems Inc. (HP), Microsoft and VMware for server virtualization. While this allows Cisco and HP to leverage ISV software, it inherently limits what these vendors can do.

The InteliCloud 360 can also run these off-the-shelf server virtualization products. But to get server virtualization efficiency from 25% of the overhead to less than 2% and increase the virtualization scope to envelope networks and storage requires InteliCloud's inVELOPE server virtualization, inSTORE storage virtualization and inCONTROL management software.

inVELOP performs OS-level virtualization that simplifies end-to-end integration. It provides 100% hardware and software abstraction for servers cross platform, including AMD, Intel, Linux, Oracle-Sun, Solaris 10, Windows Server 2003/2008 and networks with a common interface.

inSTORE simplifies the sharing of common storage with fabric-based "block storage virtualization." It stores data utilizing a dynamically optimized map to support multiple applications across a common pool of block storage resources.

inCONTROL combines information from each resource within the chassis to optimize overall system behavior allocating chassis resources on-demand based on policy. Each chassis has its own instance of inCONTROL. When there are multiple chassis, each instance of inCONTROL interacts with all of the others to form a geographically-aware grid or cloud. Resources are then allocated on-demand based on policy and location cross chassis. This allows dozens of InteliCloud 360s to be aggregated into a single system. InteliCloud 360 should be quite competitive with both Cisco's Unified Computing System and HP's BladeSystem Matrix.

BIO: Marc Staimer is president of Dragon Slayer Consulting.

This was last published in July 2009

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