I’m not sure how the future of whitebox Ethernet will play out, but when I look at x86 servers, I can see a possible path. Most switches and most servers are built using merchant silicon (Broadcom for the former, Intel for the later), so I wrote this blog on Cisco’s UCS 5, which are based on the Intel Skylake CPUs, to highlight the similarities.
Note: I could just have easily written this article about HPE or Dell. It just so happens that Cisco announcements are in my RSS feed while others are not.
Cisco updated its range of whitebrand/brightbox x86 servers today. Packed with Intel’s latest Skylake x86 merchant silicon CPUs, and with selected components from hard drive vendors using high-quality Chinese manufacturing facilities, these whitebrand servers are backed by Cisco design, product management, and global support teams.
Cisco has extensively customized these whitebrand servers with its own unique network interface cards and onboard server management system.
Cisco today announced a new generation of servers and software that extend its unique, unified approach to computing. The Cisco Unified Computing System™ (Cisco UCS®) M5 generation builds on the company’s vision to deliver pervasive simplicity, uncompromised application performance and a strategic, future-proof architecture for IT.
You can find almost identical products from HPE, Dell, Lenovo, and many others. They also have fancy NICs and their own server management systems, making up about 5% differentiation of the physical product from the silicon that they are licensed to sell by Intel.
The only flexibility in system design is the ability to design the metal chassis, airflow, NIC, BMC and a small number of other accessories.
Cisco UCS B200 M5 Blade Server: a fundamental data center workhorse in a half-width blade form factor, the B200 delivers performance, versatility and density for traditional multi-tier or distributed applications. It leads the industry in GPU density on general purpose half-width blade servers with support for up to two GPUs.
Cisco UCS B480 M5 Blade Server: delivers market-leading performance, versatility and density for workloads ranging from memory-intensive, mission-critical enterprise applications to distributed database virtualized workloads.
Cisco UCS C220 M5 Rack Server: among the most versatile general-purpose enterprise infrastructure and application servers in the industry, this high-density 2-socket rack server delivers industry-leading performance and efficiency for a wide range of workloads, including virtualization, collaboration, and bare-metal applications.
Cisco UCS C240 M5 Rack Server: a storage and I/O optimized enterprise-class rack server for big data analytics, software-defined storage and bare metal applications.
Cisco UCS C480 M5 Rack Server: featuring an innovative modular architecture for flexible technology refreshes, the C480 delivers scale-up extensibility for in-memory databases, big data analytics, virtualization, VDI and bare metal applications. GPU support has tripled—with up to six supported—as has disk capacity, which now supports 32 drives.
Cisco differentiates its whitebox x86 product with a number of variations that are reminiscent of cars: There’s a wide range of leather seats, entertainment systems, fancy wheels, and so on, while the chassis, drive train, and engine are identical.
In other words, the press release might as well read “We have produced a wide range of metal chassis units that offer different seating arrangements and upgrades to the basic design according to your needs.”
The Etherealmind View
I’m using this post to view x86 servers as “whitebox” and to note that well-known vendors like HPE, Dell, and Cisco are re-branding someone else’s technology. This is approximately similar to current generations of whitebox Ethernet, where most vendors are using Broadcom Trident/Jericho/Dune ASICs in their Ethernet platforms.
What’s different for networking is that vendors add value through operating systems and applications. By contrast, x86 customers self-assemble the server/OS/application stack using in-house resources with a hypervisor, Windows, or Linux. Then they install the applications they need.
For networking, vendors add software to generate far more revenue from sales through software licensing of applications that the vendors develop in-house. Because most of the applications are based on 30-year old protocols that are well understood, the risks are low and profit margins are large. Selling network devices as mainframes is an attractive business model.
It’s been an interesting exercise. Any thoughts?
PS: Note how Cisco’s press release doesn’t mention Intel at all. Is that a bit strange?