FlexPod and UCS – where are we now?

I have been working on FlexPod for about a year now, and on UCS for a couple of years; in my opinion it’s great tech and takes a lot of the pain away from designing new data center infrastructure solutions, taking away the guesswork, and bringing inherent simplicity, reliability and resilience to the space. Over the last year or so, there has been a shift in the Cisco Validated Designs (CVDs) coming out of Cisco, and as things have moved forward, there is a noticeable shift in the way things are going with FlexPod. I should note that some of what I discuss here is already clear, and some is mere conjecture. I think the direction things are going in with FlexPod is a symptom of changes in the industry, but it is clear that converged solutions are becoming more and more desirable as the Enterprise technology world moves forward.

So what are the key changes we are seeing?

The SDN elephant in the room 

Cisco’s ACI (Application-centric Infrastructure) has taken a while to get moving; the replacement of existing 3-tier network architecture with a leaf-spine network is something which is not going to happen overnight. The switched fabric is arguably a great solution for modern data centers, where east-west traffic is the bulk of network activity, and Spanning Tree Protocol continues to be the bane of network admins, but its implementation often requires either green-field deployments, or forklift replacement of large portions of the existing core networking of a data center.

That’s not to say ACI is not doing OK in terms of sales; Cisco’s figures, and case studies, seem to show that there is uptake, and some large customers taking this on. So how does this fit in with FlexPod? Well, the Cisco Validated Designs (CVDs) released over the last 12 months have all included the new Nexus 9000 series switches, rather than the previous stalwart Nexus 5000 series. These are ACI based switches, which are also able to operate in the ‘legacy’ NX-OS mode. Capability wise, in the context of FlexPod, there is not a lot of difference, they now have FCoE support, can do vPC, QoS, Layer 3, and all the good stuff we come to expect from Nexus switches.

So from what I can gather, the inclusion of 9K switches in the FlexPod line (outside of the FlexPod with ACI designs), is there to enable FlexPod customers to more easily move into the leaf/spine ACI network architecture at a later date, should they wish to do this. This makes sense, and the pricing on the 9Ks being used looks favourable over the 5Ks, so this is a win-win for customers, even if they don’t eventually decide to go with ACI.

40GbE standard 

Recent announcements around the Gen 3 UCS Fabric Interconnects have revealed that 40GbE is now going to be the standard for UCS connectivity solutions, and the new chassis designs show 4 x 40GbE QSFP connections, totaling 320Gbps total bandwidth per chassis, this is an incredible throughput, and although I can’t see 99% of customers going anywhere near these levels, it does help to strengthen the UCS platform’s use cases for even the most high performance environments, and reduces the requirement for Infiniband type solutions for high throughput environments.

Another interesting point, and following on from the ACI ramblings above, is that the new 6300 series Fabric Interconnects are now based on the Nexus 9300 switching line, rather than the Nexus 5K based 6200 series. This positions them perfectly to act as a leaf in an ACI fabric one day, should this become the eventual outcome of Cisco’s strategy.

HTML5 FTW! 

With the announcements about the new UCS generation, came the news that from UCS firmware version 3.1, the software for UCS would now be unified for UCS classic, UCS Mini, and the newish M-series systems, this simplifies things for people looking at version numbers and how they relate to the relevance of the release, and means that there should now be relative feature parity across all footprints of UCS systems.

The most exciting, if you have experienced long running pain with Java, is that the new release incorporates the HTML5 interface, which has been seen on UCS Mini since its release. I’m sure this will bring new challenges with it, but for now at least, something fresh to look forward to for those running UCS classic.

FlexPod Mini – now not so mini 

 

FlexPod Mini is based on the UCS Mini release, which came out around 18 months ago, this is based on the I/O Modules (or FEXs) in the UCS 5108 chassis, being replaced with UCS 6324 pocket sized Fabric Interconnects, ultimately cramming a single chassis of UCS, and the attached network equipment into just 6 rack units. This could be expanded with C-series servers, but the scale for UCS blades, was strictly limited to the 8 blade limit of a standard chassis. With the announcement of the new Fabric Interconnect models came the news of a new ‘QSFP Scalability Port License’, which allows the 40GbE port on the UCS 6324 FI to be utilized with a 1 x QSFP to 4 x SFP+ cable, to add another chassis to the UCS Mini.

Personally I haven’t installed a UCS Mini, but the form factor is a great fit for certain use cases, and the more flexible this is, the more desire there will be to use this solution. For FlexPod, this ultimately means more suitable use cases, particularly in the ROBO (remote office/branch office) type scenario.

What’s Next? 

So with the FlexPod now having new switches, and new UCS hardware, it seems something new from NetApp is next on the list for FlexPod. The FAS8000 series is a couple of years old now, so we will likely see a refresh on this at some point, probably with 40GbE on board, more flash options, and faster CPUs. The recent purchase of SolidFire by NetApp will also quite probably see some kind of SolidFire based FlexPod CVD coming out of the Cisco/NetApp partnership in the near future.

We are also seeing the release of some exciting (or at least as exciting as these things can be!) new software releases this year: Windows Server 2016, vSphere 6.5 (assuming this will be revealed at VMworld), and OpenStack Mitaka, all of which will likely bring new CVDs.

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Author: railroadmanuk

Currently working at ANS Group as a FlexPod Engineer, designing and implementing converged infrastructure solutions featuring NetApp storage, Cisco Nexus networking, and UCS compute. Aspiring coder, virtualization aficionado, and automator of things.

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