InfoWorld review: Cisco UCS wows

Cisco's Unified Computing System is a more manageable, more scalable, and essentially superior blade server system, despite 1.0 warts

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Connecting the dots
Perhaps a mental picture is in order. A baseline UCS configuration would have two FIs run in active/passive mode, with all network communication run in active/active mode across both FIs and each chassis. (Think of a Cisco Catalyst 6509 switch chassis with redundant supervisors -- even if one supervisor is standby, the Ethernet ports on that supervisor are usable. The two FIs work basically the same way.) They are connected to each other with a pair of 1Gb Ethernet ports, and they have out-of-band management ports connected to the larger LAN. The blade chassis is connected by two or four 10Gb links from each FEX (Fabric Extended) in the chassis, a set to each FI. That's it. A fully configured chassis with 80Gb uplinks will have four power cords and eight SFP+ cables coming out of it -- nothing more. Conceivably, an entire rack of UCS chassis running 56 blades could be driven with only 56 data cables, 28 if only four 10Gb links are required on each chassis.

From there, the pair of FIs are connected to the LAN with some number of 10Gb uplinks, and the remainder of the ports on the FI are used to connect to the chassis. A pair of FIs can drive 18 chassis at 40Gb per chassis with two 10Gb uplinks to the datacenter LAN, allowing for eight 4Gb FC connections to a SAN from an eight-port FC expansion card.

The basis of the UCS configuration is the DME (Data Management Engine), a memory-based relational database that controls all aspects of the solution. It is itself driven by an XML API that is wide open. Everything revolves around this API, and it's quite simple to script interactions with the API to monitor or perform every function of UCS. In fact, the GUI and the CLI are basically shells around the XML configuration, so there's no real disparity between what can and can't be done with the CLI and GUI, or even external scripts. UCS is a surprisingly open and accessible system. Following that tenet, backing up the entirety of a UCS configuration is simple: The whole config can be sent to a server via SCP, FTP, SFTP, or TFTP, although this action cannot be scheduled through the GUI or CLI.

The initial setup of a UCS installation takes about a minute. Through the console, an IP is assigned to the out-of-band management interface on the initial FI, and a cluster IP is assigned within the same subnet. A name is given to the cluster, admin passwords are set, and that's about it. The secondary FI will detect the primary and require only an IP address to join the party. Following that, pointing a browser at the cluster will provide a link to the Java GUI, and the UCS installation is ready for configuration.

This handy map shows the direct relationship of a single chassis and a pair of Fabric Interconnects. Although depicted as external devices, the Fabric Extenders are actually modules within the chassis itself. Click to enlarge.

Build me up, Scotty
The first order of business is to define the ports on the FIs. They can either be uplink ports to the LAN or server ports that connect to a chassis. Configuring these ports is done by right-clicking on a visual representation of each FI and selecting the appropriate function. It's simple, but also cumbersome because you cannot select a group of ports; you have to do them one by one. Granted, this isn't a common task, but it's annoying just the same. Once you've defined the ports, the chassis will automatically be detected, and after a few minutes, all the blades in the chassis will be visible and ready for assignment.

This is where it gets interesting. Before anything happens to the blades, various pools and global settings must be defined. These pools concern Fibre Channel WWNN (World Wide Node Name) and WWPN (World Wide Port Name) assignments, Ethernet MAC pool assignments, UUIDs (Universally Unique Identifiers), and management IP pools for the BMC (Baseboard Management Controller) interfaces of the blades. These are open for interpretation, as you can assign whatever range of addresses you like for the UUID, WWNN, WWPN, and MAC ranges. In fact, it's so wide open that you can get yourself into trouble by inadvertently overlapping these addresses if you're not careful. However, assigning pools is extremely simple, accomplished by specifying a starting address and the number of addresses to put into the pool. Make sure you get it right, however, because you cannot modify a pool later; you can only specify another pool using an adjacent range of addresses.

At top is the heads-up display for a single chassis, showing a fault flag on a blade bay where the blade was suddenly pulled. Below is a view of one of the Fabric Interconnects, showing connected ports and system status. Click to enlarge .


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