UCSM 1.4 : Where to find firmware now

Prior to UCSM 1.4, all UCS firmware was delivered as a single bundle – this included UCSM itself, the code for the Fabric Interconnects, IO Modules, blades, mezzanine cards, etc.   With UCSM 1.4, code is now delivered in three different packages.   This makes it easier for Cisco to release support for new blades, mezzanine cards, etc, without having to release a new version of UCSM.

First, the old way:

Note the path to the software – you’d navigate to the Fabric Interconnect and select “Complete Software Bundle”.   As of December 31, 2010, the last version posted her is 1.3(1p) – even though 1.4 has been released.   This is due to the new way code is distributed.   Instead of going to a specific piece of hardware, navigate to Products/Unified Computing and review the options listed:

The three new categories are “Cisco UCS Infrastructure Software”, “Cisco UCS Manager Server Software”, and “Cisco UCS Manager Capability Catalog Software”.

The “Infrastructure Software” category contains UCSM, and the firmware/software for the Fabric Interconnects, IO Modules, and FEX modules (for C-series attachment).

“Cisco UCS Manager Server Software” has two sub-categories, one for B-series blades and one for C-series rack-mount servers.

Finally, the “UCS Manager Capability Catalog Software” category contains a small file that describes (to UCSM) all of the components of a UCS system for inventory, categorization, etc.   If Cisco were to release, say, new fan modules that had different specifications than the existing ones, only this file would need to be updated instead of a full system-wide upgrade.

I hope this helps when going looking for the latest code for your UCS system!

UCSM 1.4 : Direct upload of firmware bundles

Ok, so this one isn’t earth-shattering, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

Previous to UCSM 1.4, the only way to transfer bundles of firmware to UCSM was via an external server – FTP, TFTP, SCP, or SFTP.   In most shops, this isn’t a big deal – you likely already have a utility server of some type available on your management network(s) for other similar tasks.   In some scenarios (especially greenfield deployments), though, you may not have ready access to such a server or for other reasons may not want to put your UCS code there.

With 1.4, you can now upload firmware directly from the UCSM client.   When selecting the Download Firmware option in Firmware Management,

You are now presented with the option to either upload a file from your local workstation,

or use the traditional method transferring the file from a remote server.

Again, not a huge deal, but definitely a nice convenience enhancement.

UCSM 1.4 : Direct attach appliance/storage ports!

One of the most often requested features in the early days of UCS was the ability to directly attach 10GE storage devices (both Ethernet and FCoE based) to the UCS Fabric Interconnects.

Up until UCSM 1.4, only two types of Ethernet port configurations existed in UCS – Server Ports (those connected to IO Modules in the chassis) and Uplink Ports (those connected to the upstream Ethernet switches).   As UCS treated all Uplink ports equally, you could not in a supported manner connect an end device such as a storage array or server to those ports.   There were, of course, clever customers who found ways to do it – but it wasn’t the “right” or most optimal way to do it.

Especially within the SMB market, many customers may not have existing 10G Ethernet infrastructures outside of UCS, or FC switches to connect storage to.   For these customers, UCS could often provide a “data center in a box”, with the exception of storage connectivity.   For Ethernet-based storage, all storage arrays had to be connected to some external Ethernet switch, while FC arrays had to be connected to a FC switch.   Adding a 10G Ethernet or FC switch just for a few ports didn’t make a lot of financial sense, especially if those customers didn’t have any additional need for those devices beyond UCS.

With UCSM 1.4, all of that changes.   Of course, the previous method of connecting to upstream Ethernet and FC switches still exists, and will still be the proper topology for many customers.  Now, however, a new set of options has been opened.

Take a look at some of the new port types available in UCSM 1.4 :

New in 1.4 are the Appliance, FCoE Storage, Monitoring Ethernet, Monitoring FC, and Storage FC port types.

I’ll cover the Monitoring types in a later post.

On the Ethernet side of things, the Appliance and FCoE Storage allow for the direct connection of Ethernet storage devices to the Fabric Interconnects.

The Appliance port is intended for connecting Ethernet-based storage arrays (such as those serving iSCSI or NFS services) directly to the Fabric Interconnect.   If you recall from previous posts, in the default deployment mode (Ethernet Host Virtualizer), UCS selected one Uplink port to accept all broadcast and multicast traffic from the upstream switches.   By adding this Appliance port type, you can ensure that any port configured as an Appliance Port will not be selected to receive broadcast/multicast traffic from the Ethernet fabric, as well as providing the ability to configure VLAN support on the port independently of the other Uplink ports.

The FCoE Storage Port type provides similar functionality as the Appliance Port type, while extending FCoE protocol support beyond the Fabric Interconnect.   Note that this is not intended for an FCoE connection to another FCF (FCoE Forwarder) such as a Nexus 5000.   Only direct connection of FCoE storage devices (such as those produced by NetApp and EMC) are supported.   When an Ethernet port is configured as an FCoE Storage Port, traffic is expected to arrive without a VLAN tag.   The Ethernet headers will be stripped away and a VSAN tag will be added to the FC frame.   Much as the previous FC port configuration was, only one VSAN is supported per FCoE Storage Port.   Think of these ports like an Ethernet “access” port – the traffic is expected to arrive un-tagged, and the switching device (in this case, the Fabric Interconnect) will tag the frames with a VSAN to keep track of it internally.   When the frames are eventually delivered to the destination (typically the CNA on the blade), the VSAN tag will be removed before delivery.   Again, it’s very similar to traffic flowing through a traditional Ethernet switch, access port to access port.   Even though both the sending and receiving devices are expecting un-tagged traffic, it’s still tagged internally within the switch while in transit.

The Storage FC Port type allows for the direct attachment of a FC storage device to one of the native FC ports on the Fabric Interconnect expansion modules.  Like the FCoE Storage Port type, the FC frames arriving on these ports are expected to be un-tagged – so no connection to an MDS FC switch, etc.   Each Storage FC Port is assigned a VSAN number to keep the traffic separated within the UCS Unified Fabric.   When used in this way, the Fabric Interconnect is not providing any FC zoning configuration capabilities – all devices within a particular VSAN will be allowed, at least at the FC switching layer (FC2), to communicate with each other.   The expectation is that the devices themselves, through techniques such as LUN Masking, etc, will provide the access control.   This is acceptable for small implementations, but does not scale well for larger or more enterprise-like configurations.   In those situations, an external FC switch should be used either for connectivity or to provide zoning information – the so-called “hybrid model”.   I’ll cover the hybrid model in a later post.

What’s cool in UCSM 1.4?

Since so many other great bloggers announced earlier this month that Cisco had released UCS Manager 1.4 (codenamed ‘Balboa’), I didn’t see any reason to wade into the fray with yet another summary of the release notes.   For one such excellent summary, see Steve Chamber’s post here: http://viewyonder.com/2010/12/20/ciscoucs-1-4-is-here/

Instead I thought it might be useful, especially for those new to UCS, to do a series of posts on the new features (there’s a ton of them!) and what they really mean to an existing or potential UCS shop.   I’m really excited by this release, as there are so many cool new things that really cement UCS as a top-notch architecture.  So many of my wish-list items have been fulfilled by this release.  Many of the features I’ve heard customers asking for have been delivered in 1.4, so I’m sure this upgrade is going to make a lot of people very happy.

So, I have a handful of features that I plan to detail over the next few days and weeks, but I’d like to know – what features are you most curious about?  What features perhaps do you not see the value of?   Your comments will help me prioritize my posts!

Why doesn’t Cisco…?

I get asked a lot why Cisco doesn’t have feature X, or support hardware Y in their UCS product line.   A recent discussion with a coworker reminded me that lots of those questions are out there, so I might as well give my opinion on them.

Disclaimer : I don’t work for Cisco, I don’t speak for Cisco, these are just my random musings about the various questions I hear.

Why doesn’t Cisco have non-Intel blades, like AMD or RISC-type architectures?  Are they going to in the future?

As of today, Intel processors (the Xeon 5500/5600, 6500/7500 families) represent the core (pun intended) of the x86 processor market.  Sure, even Intel has other lines (Atom, for one), and AMD still makes competitive processors, but most benchmarks and analysts (except for those employed by other vendors) agree that Intel is the current king.   AMD has leapfrogged Intel in the past, and may do so again in the future, but for right now – Intel is where it’s at.

If you look at this from a cost-to-engineer perspective, it starts to make sense.   It will cost Cisco just as much to develop an AMD-based blade as it does for the more popular and common Intel processors.   Cisco may be losing business to customers that prefer AMD, but until they’ve run out of customers on the Intel side of things, it just doesn’t make financial sense to attack the AMD space as well.

As for RISC/Unix type architectures (really, any non-x86 platform), who’s chip would they use?  HP?  Not likely.  IBM?  Again, why support a competitor’s architecture – especially one as proprietary as IBM.  (Side note – I’m a really big fan of IBM AIX systems, just not in the “blade” market)   Roll their own?  Why bother?  It’s still a question of return on investment.   Even if Cisco could convince customers to abandon their existing proprietary architectures for a Cisco proprietary processor, how much business do you really think they’d do?   Nowhere near enough to justify the development cost.

Why doesn’t Cisco have Infiniband adapters for their blades?  What about the rack-mount servers?

One of the key concepts in UCS is the unified fabric, using only Ethernet as the chassis-to-Fabric Interconnect topology.  By eliminating protocol-specific cabling (Fibre Channel, Infiniband, etc), the overall complexity of the environment is reduced and the bandwidth is flexibly allocated between upper (above Ethernet) layer protocols.   Instead of having separate cabling and modules for different protocols (a la legacy blade architectures), any protocol needed is encapsulated over Ethernet.   Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is the first such implemenatation in UCS, but certainly won’t be the last.

Infiniband as a protocol has a number of compelling features for certain applications, so I’d definitely see Cisco supporting RDMA over Converged Ethernet (RoCE) in the future.  RoCE does for Infiniband what FCoE does for Fibre Channel.  The underlying transport is replaced with Ethernet, while keeping the protocol intact.  Proponents of Infiniband will point to the transport’s legendary latency characteristics, specifically low and predictable.   The UCS unified fabric architecture provides just such an environment – low, predictable latency that’s consistent in both inter- and intra-chassis applications.

As for the rack-mount servers, there’s nothing stopping customers from purchasing and installing their own PCI Infiniband adapters.   Cisco isn’t producing one, and won’t directly support it – but rather treats it as a 3rd party device to be supported by that manufacturer.

What about embedded hypervisors?

Another key feature of UCS is that the blades themselves are stateless, at least in theory.  No identity (MACs, WWNs, UUIDs, etc), no personality (boot order, BIOS configuration) until one is assigned by the management architecture.    Were the blades to have an embedded hypervisor, that statelessness is lost.  Even though it’s potentially a very small amount of stateful data (IP address, etc), it’s still there.   This is probably the most-likely to be supported question in my list.  My expectation is that at some point in the future, the UCS Manager will be able to “push” an embedded hypervisor, along with its configuration, to the blade along with the service profile.   By making UCS Manager the true stateful owner of the configuration data, having a “working copy” on the blade becomes less of an issue.

Final thoughts…

I’ve used this analogy in the past, so I’ll repeat it here.   I look at UCS as sort of the Macintosh of the server world.   It’s a closely controlled set of hardware in order to provide the best possible user experience, at the cost of not supporting some edge-case configurations or feature sets.   No, you can’t have Infiniband, or GPUs on the blade, or embedded hypervisors.   The fact is that the majority of data center workloads don’t need these features.   If you need those features, there are plenty of vendors that provide them.  If you want a single vendor for all your servers – regardless of edge-case requirements – there are certainly vendors that provide that (HP, IBM, etc).   In my opinion, though, it’s that breadth of those product offering that makes those solutions less attractive.   In accommodating for every possible use case, you end up with a very complex architecture.   Cisco UCS is streamlined to provide the best possible experience for the bulk of data center workloads.   Cisco doesn’t need to be, or want to be as near as I can tell, an “everything to everybody” solution.  Pick something you can do really, really well and do it better than anyone else.   Let the “other guys” work on the edge cases.  Yes – that will cost Cisco some business.   Believe it or not, despite what the rhetoric on Twitter would have you believe, there’s enough business out there for all of these server vendors.   Cisco, even if they’re wildly successful in replacing legacy servers with UCS, isn’t going to run HP or IBM or Dell out of business.   They don’t need to.   They can make a lot of money, and make a lot of customers very happy, co-existing in the marketplace with these vendors.   Cisco provides yet another choice.   If it doesn’t meet your needs, don’t buy it.   🙂

No offense or disrespect is intended to my HP and IBM colleagues.   You guys make cool gear too, you’re just solving the problems in a different way.   Which way is “best”?  Well, now, that really comes down to the specific customer doesn’t it?