Cisco bet big on its UCS products for data centres – and now it's going "all in" with a massive, resilient and green data centre built on that integrated blade architecture.

In fact, the company as a whole is migrating to the year-old Unified Computing System – Cisco's bold entry into the world of computing - as fast as possible. Plans call for 90% of Cisco's total IT load to be serviced by UCS within 12 to 18 months.

The strategy - what Cisco calls "drinking its own champagne" instead of the industry's more commonly used "eating your own dog food" - is most evident in the new data centre the company is just now completing in the Dallas/Fort Worth area (exact location masked for security) to complement a data centre already in the area.

Texas DC2, as Cisco calls it, is ambitious in its reliance on UCS, but it is also forward leaning in that it will use a highly virtualised and highly resilient design, act as a private cloud, and boast many green features. Oh, and it's very cool.

But first, a little background.

John Manville, vice president of the IT Network and Data Services team, says the need for the new data centre stemmed from a review of Cisco's internal infrastructure three years ago. Wondering if they were properly positioned for growth, he put together a cross-functional team to analyse where they were and where they needed to go.

The result: a 200-page document that spelled out a wide-ranging, long-term IT strategy that Manville says lays the groundwork for five to 10 years.

"It was taken up to the investment committee of Cisco's board because there was a request for a fairly substantial amount of investment in data centres to make sure we had sufficient capacity, resiliency, and could transform ourselves to make sure we could help Cisco grow and make our customers successful," Manville says. (Manville talks data centre strategy, the migration to UCS, cloud TCO and describes a new IT organisation structure in this Q&A.)

The board gave the green light and Manville's team of 450 (Cisco all told has 3,100 people in IT) is now two and a half years into bringing the vision to reality.

"Part of the strategy was to build data centres or partner with companies that have data centres, and we bundled the investment decisions into phases," Manville says.

The company had just recently retrofitted an office building in the Dallas area – what Cisco calls "Texas DC1" - to create a data centre with 28,000 square feet of raised floor in four data halls. The first phase of new investments called for complementing Texas DC1 with a sister data centre in the area that would be configured in an active/active mode – both centres shouldering the processing load for critical applications - as well as enhancements to a data centre in California and the company's primary backup facility in North Carolina.

The second investment round, which the company is in the middle of, "involves building a data centre and getting a partner site in Amsterdam so we can have an Active/Active capability there as well," Manville says.

A third round would involve investment in the Asia-Pacific region "if the business requirements and latency requirements require that we have something there," he says.

Excluding the latter, Cisco will end up with six Tier 3 data centres (meaning n+1 redundancy throughout), consisting of a metro pair in Texas, another pair in the Netherlands, and the sites in North Carolina and California. The company today has 51 data centres, but of that only seven are production centres while the rest are smaller development sites, says IT Team Leader James Cribari. So while there is some consolidation here, this overhaul is more about system consolidation using virtualisation and migration to new platforms, in this case UCS.

Cisco today has more than 16,000 server operating system instances, dedicated and virtual, production and development. Of that, 6,000 are virtual and 3,000 of those VMs are already on UCS (Cisco has about 2,500 UCS blades deployed globally). The plan is to get 80% of production operating system instances virtualised and have 90% of the total IT workload serviced by UCS within 12 to 18 months, Manville says.  

While job one is about capacity and resiliency, there is a significant TCO story, Manville says.

The cost of having a physical server inside a data centre is about $3,600 per server per quarter, including operations costs, space, power, people, the SAN, and so forth, Manville says.

Adopting virtualisation drives the average TCO down 37%, he says. "We think once we implement UCS and the cloud technology we can get that down to around $1,600 on average per operating system instance per quarter. Where we are right now is somewhere in the middle because we're still moving into the new data centre and still have a lot of legacy data centres that we haven't totally retrofitted with UCS or our cloud."

But he thinks they can achieve more: "If we get a little bit more aggressive about virtualisation and squeezing applications down a more, we think we can get the TCO down to about $1,200 per operating system instance per quarter."