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Cisco brings server virtualization to the branch office

Joel Snyder | Feb. 26, 2013
E140D, a mid-range blade, is a speedy, well-designed, easy to manage and good performing server

Because the blade is integrated into the router, we wouldn't expect to use the video and keyboard ports on the blade very often, although they are available. Instead, the UCS Express blade uses the same lights-out management system as Cisco's larger UCS servers, the Cisco Integrated Management Controller (what Cisco calls a baseboard management controller, or BMC).

Each UCS Express blade gets its own IP address for management, which can be connected either internally through the ISR router, or via an externally accessible dedicated management port.

The particular nature of the integration between the UCS Express blade and the ISR G2 router does present a few restrictions. Because the ISR G2 is normally a router, not a switch, you can't just sling virtual machines onto virtual LANs, unless you've installed some additional hardware to enable Ethernet switching.

This means that VMs running on the UCS Express blade will generally be routed, not switched, when talking through the internal Ethernet connections. That may be fine or even desirable in some topologies, but it can also be a confusing restriction to system managers used to having all of their servers on the same subnet.

It's easy to work around this problem by running a physical Ethernet cable from one of the external Ethernet ports on the UCS Express blade to a switch somewhere in the network, but this adds complexity and a potential failure point. None of this is a show-stopper, but it is something to think about before committing to a large-scale deployment of UCS Express blades in branch offices.

Although the Cisco UCS Express blade shares the same management system as other UCS servers, it doesn't integrate into Cisco UCS Manager tools. Instead, you use either a Web browser, as we did, or a command-line interface to control the blade -- turning it on and off, managing RAID settings, checking sensors such as air flow and temperature, and reviewing hardware error logs.

The Web-based tool also gives direct access to the console, and provides virtual CD-ROM capabilities for initial loading of operating systems.

We found the management simple and straightforward. Although our beta unit initially had an out-of-date firmware load that caused it to shut down abruptly, upgrading the firmware and getting the Cisco UCS Express to run smoothly was a simple operation with the Web-based GUI.

Large deployments of UCS Express blades will also be eased by enterprise-class features in the UCS management tools, such as integration with Active Directory, SNMP traps and configurable alarms, and access controls to increase security of the management plane of the blade.

Running virtual machines

Our Cisco UCS Express blade came with two 8GB SD flash cards, one to run the blade itself, and the other ready for the VMware hypervisor we loaded on the blade through the Web-based GUI.


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