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Increased Windows support could help spur UCS adoption

Though new to IT, the adoption of unified computing systems could accelerate as Microsoft partnerships lead to better UCS support for Windows servers and apps.

IT administrators often tread dangerous waters when selecting and deploying equipment. It's not just a matter of ensuring performance and vital features; each piece of equipment must interoperate within the data center and integrate with management tools. When trouble finally does strike, administrators have to coordinate service and maintenance.

Organizations hoping to break this vicious cycle are turning to unified computing system (UCS) technology, allowing for a single source of pre-packaged equipment. It's an idea that's gaining traction, but it's certainly not for everyone.

The promise of unified computing systems

The basic premise of UCS is simple; deal with a single vendor (such as Cisco) that provides computing, networking, storage, and virtualization as a single platform and single point of management. The vendor provides the equipment already integrated and tested, and in many cases can actually handle the deployment and ongoing maintenance.

This approach touts some attractive benefits. For example:

  • solutions are generally simple and complete
  • there are no worries about performance or interoperability
  • there's only "one throat to choke" when problems occur
  • the systems are scalable

"We are able to continue to add additional compute blades into the system without having to significantly grow our I/O infrastructure," said Michael Heil, technical infrastructure manager at Moses Cone Health System in Greensboro, NC.

But there are issues to consider as well. A unified computing system is generally intended to stand alone, so there is no guarantee that other non-UCS products will interoperate properly. This also raises the potential specter of vendor lock-in. Experts point out that "lock-in" is not necessarily bad, but administrators must carefully evaluate the product and its roadmap to be sure that it's consistent with the organization's objectives -- if not, UCS users might find themselves on a technological dead end. As Heil points out, the adoption of a single ubiquitous "system" can leave an organization vulnerable in the event of a fault; the proverbial eggs are all in one basket.

Trends with unified computing systems today

So what's really happening with UCS adoption? Preliminary results from TechTarget's Data Center Decisions 2010 survey asked over 500 IT professionals about their UCS choices. Based on survey results, 77% of respondents have not purchased products like Cisco's UCS, leaving just 23% making investments in the technology. This is certainly not a surprise considering the relative youth of the technology. "Today it's still a relatively new product and concept for many people," said Rod Gabriel, IT infrastructure engineer at United Financial Services, a federal credit union in Scotch Plains, NJ. "Since it's a fairly radical change in the approach to what has been long considered a standard server deployment, it takes some time to gain a solid foothold."

More on Cisco UCS

"The new Cisco UCS will offer four times the bandwidth, four times the computing capacity, 50% more cores and 50% more Fibre Channel bandwidth than its predecessor.

Still, despite these enhancements and its unique approach of combining virtualization, hardware and management, the Cisco UCS is a tough sell into many data centers."

Read more: Cisco UCS -- What's its audience?

Unified computing system adoption is deeply divided. Only about 11% of respondents have deployed UCS throughout the entire data center, and another 20% say that they are simply not considering UCS at this time. Still, while UCS may not yet be a linchpin of the modern data center, it is clearly attracting interest from the industry. Over 32% of survey respondents are currently evaluating unified computing systems, another 21% report a partial UCS deployment in production, and almost 15% indicate they expect to start evaluating UCS technology in 2010 or 2011.

Experts expect adoption to accelerate. "As the benefits become more generally accepted, UCS-type offerings from other vendors will become much more common in the next year," Gabriel said. "As the pool of experienced people grows, so will the adaptation of the technology."

Survey respondents also shared the factors that drove their UCS adoption. Almost 53% sought to improve data center performance, and another 46% expect to save time and trouble with UCS maintenance and management. Over 37% want to eliminate data center integration problems, while more than 22% expect improved vendor support and less "finger pointing". About 21% of respondents see the UCS vendor's roadmap complementing their own business interests, and 19% have moved to UCS as a result of their existing relationship with the vendor.

Heil also sees UCS as a path to cloud computing. "Unified computing is a core building block to a migration to private and public cloud computing," he said. "This means quick deployment of physical and virtual compute capacity, defining operational costs per workloads, and so on."

UCS implications for Windows

As with many technologies, the long-term success and commercial viability of unified computing systems may well be influenced by Microsoft and its support. The news here is good; in early 2009, Microsoft partnered with Cisco, allowing Cisco to package, sell and support Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008. Users like Heil and Gabriel see this as a huge benefit for UCS, allowing better support for Windows and Microsoft applications in virtualized UCS environments.

"I know they're working close together on testing, certification and benchmarking various Microsoft applications, which I think will be helpful for people looking at UCS to see that Exchange, SharePoint, [SQL Server], and others are certified and will run successfully," Heil said. "I think this partnership, as well as partnerships with other OS and software vendors, will help continue to grow the acceptance with Cisco UCS."

Stephen J. Bigelow, senior features writer, has more than 15 years of technical writing experience in the PC/technology industry. He holds a BSEE, CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and Server+ certifications and has written hundreds of articles and more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting. Contact him at

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