Home > Hardware refresh > Battle of the Blades – Part II

Battle of the Blades – Part II

Before reading this post, please read the following two posts first:



So far I’ve talked a bit about methods for determining when to replace equipment, what equipment is to be used as the replacements,  and what factors may go into the overall decision.  I also mentioned that this post would cover some of our strategic initiatives and how they factored into the overall product choice.  I lied.    I missed an important piece of history in the background.

Let’s recap:  I was prepared to order traditional rack-mounts in June 2009.  Our management team asked for a capacity analysis.  This process of getting this analysis took so long that we decided to look at blades.  Since we are an HP shop, we definitely had HP on our short list.  However, since we were taking the opportunity to rethink our architecture we decided to step out a bit and look at other unique products that existed in the blade market.  The only real requirement is that we had to have a mindset that the ‘unique’ vendor was viable from our perspective.    Who came to mind?  Cisco.

Cisco?  Yes, Cisco.  When we started looking at blades, Cisco had been shipping their UCS product for a few months already.  Press was good, reviews were good, etc.  Not only were we seeing positive news, Cisco offered a very unique architecture.  Look at all the differences between UCS and a traditional blade system.  I am not going to list them here because it’s already been listed a number of times out there in the blogosphere.  Go check out Scott Lowe’s blog or the By the Bell blog.  Both have excellent articles on UCS characteristics.

Moving along…We couldn’t just go and say, “Let’s buy UCS.”   I don’t work that way.  I am very happy with HP rack-mount servers and would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone if asked.  If I am going to choose a different vendor, I need to have good reasons that I can objectively point to.

Thus began the epic saga that culminated in many months of  research into HP and Cisco blade offerings.  I can’t say it was enjoyable.   Part of the problem stems from the vendor HP brought in.  The sales rep, whom represents all the tier 1 companies,  didn’t/doesn’t believe in UCS.  Every time we asked for something, we got massive amounts of FUD in response.   Now to be fair to HP, the sales rep knows someone in our upper management.  I am speculating this sales rep approached management about performing a capacity analysis and that since we already use HP equipment, they brought in HP to work with them.

So a forward we go and develop a list of criteria which is as objectionable as we can get it.  Items on the list: complexity, number of cables, number of management point, RAM capacity, etc.    Some were just technical check-box items, others related to our strategic initiatives.  When all was said and done, a few of the criteria really stood out.  Two were complexity and the other was support for our strategic initiatives.  I don’t mean to bag on HP, but their blade system is complex.  We went back and forth with the vendor on developing a workable configuration for quite some time.  It wasn’t the big items that tripped us up, but rather the little things.  Unfortunately, it was these little things that would make or break the entire solution.  I am guessing that a lot of the complexity in developing a configuration is the sheer breadth of accessories that HP offers. Which switches in the chassis are needed, which HBA, which this, which that…

The more we looked at Cisco, the more we liked their solution.  Imagine being able to have 20/20 hindsight when developing a new product.  That’s what Cisco had in this case.  Cisco was able to look at all the other blade systems out there, see what was good and bad about them, and design a new solution.   Think of all the bad the comes with most blade systems.    I mentioned in a previous post that cable management was a pain point for us.  Well, you can’t get much cleaner than UCS.   How about complexity?  I am not saying Cisco is perfect, but their solution is pretty easy to work with.  Some of it has to do with the fact that there is no legacy equipment for them to be compatible with.  Some of it has to do with the fact that UCS is managed at the Fabric Interconnect vs the chassis level.

Seems like a done deal then, doesn’t it?  Cisco has a solution that meets our needs better than HP.  Simple.  Not really.  Management wanted us to consider other vendors, notably IBM.  Why IBM.  They support multiple processor families (Intel, PowerPC, Sparc), have a good track record,  and have a fair amount of market share.    So in come the IBM folks to discuss their offerings.  Personally, I wasn’t impressed.  While there was some interesting technology there, it just seemed ‘old’.  Judging by some other blog posts I have read, IBM agrees and will be coming out with some new offering over the next few months…

Are we there yet, are we there yet, are we there yet?   Nope.  HP/vendor had one more trick up their sleeve.  They managed to get some info on our criteria and then stated that they proposed the wrong product.  Instead of just a blade system, they felt that they should have proposed the BladeSystem Matrix.  Well if they weren’t complex before, they sure were then.  We went through a demo of the Matrix software and all I can say is the complexity score shot through the roof (in a bad way).   I don’t think bolting on software to SIM was the right way to go.  Even then, it was obvious that some components were not tightly integrated and were just being launched by SIM.  However, some of the new functionality did support our strategic initiatives more so than just the plain blade system as originally proposed.

In the end, we chose Cisco.  It is a done deal?  No.  There is still some jockeying going on.  All I can say is that Cisco has stepped up to the plate and has taken on the challenge of proving to us that they offer the best solution to meet our needs.

And for those strategic initiatives…next post, maybe 🙂

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