What Cisco Has to Do to Win the Blade Server Market

Over the past several months, there has been a lot of discussions about how 2011 is the year Cisco will become a leader in the blade server space.  There’s no doubt that there are a lot of customers who have moved to UCS,  but in reality there are a few other things that Cisco will need to do to win the top spot.  Today I’m going to discuss a few of these things.

The following are my recommendations / suggestions for Cisco.  The intention is not to bash anyone at Cisco, but to provide an outsider’s perspective of what I think needs to happen if Cisco wants to increase their UCS blade server market share.

Focus on Product Branding.  When you ask people what “Proliant” is, a majority of the people know it is an HP server brand.  On the contrary, ask people what “UCS” is and fewer people know.  Why?  Partially because HP has been in the server space for many years, but it’s also due to a lack of branding by Cisco.  Sure, everyone knows the name Cisco – even commoners (people outside of the data center) recognize the logo from TV shows like 24 and movies.  Cisco does a GREAT job of getting the company name out, but needs to focus on getting the UCS brand out there a little more.

Create Public Configuration and Reference Tools.  I’m a hands-on type of guy, and when I want to see what my server options are, I want to go to the manufacturers’ web sites and configure the systems myself.  IBM has a nice stand-alone product configuration tool, while HP and Dell have great web-based tools that can help you design a blade server system.  When it comes to reference tools, HP has QuickSpecs while IBM has a very informative Redbooks collection.  However when we look at Cisco, the details and list price of a UCS configuration is held within the arms of the Cisco sales teams or Certified Partners.  I don’t quite understand the reasoning of this, but if Cisco shared their tools and materials to the general public it could increase the interest in the product.

Change the UCS Partner Certification Requirements.  The last time I checked, for a business partner to become a full-blown certified partner with Cisco for the UCS product, they had to have a single engineer that was Network, Storage, Virtualization and Server certified.  While I get the idea that you want one person to be able to do everything, the reality is that is a challenging request.  For partners who have invested into IBM, HP and Dell products, getting certified on Cisco could be costly, as you have to ask your server/virtualization guy to become a network guy.  IBM, HP and Dell have similar requirements, but they allow for someone to have network certification, someone to have storage certification, etc.  Perhaps Cisco should follow suite and allow for the partner to have one person for each area instead of all-in-one.  This would attract more business partners to sell Cisco UCS which leads to more opportunities for Cisco to grow their market share.

Focus on SMB Market.  Who is the target market for UCS?  Obviously we see UCS making traction in large environments like co-location hosting facitilities where there is a large amount of virtual hosts, but what about the Small-to-Medium Business (SMB) Market?  When I look at the UCS model, I see a good fit where there are 8 or more VMware / Hyper-V hosts needed, but does Cisco UCS work in environments with 3 or 4 virtualization hosts?  Since Cisco UCS was first released in early 2009 the messaging was focused on “the Enterprise” data center.  If Cisco wants to take market share, they need to find a way to attract the smaller SMB space.

Get Bloggers Involved.  This last suggestion is based on the success that I’ve seen with HP.  They have created multiple “Technology Days” where they have invited bloggers of all sorts to participate.  In this event they provide access to the engineers who create their server and storage products.  In return, the bloggers are able to write up articles that discuss their opinions about the HP products.  I know that Cisco is looking into doing this, but hope they seriously consider it if they want to promote growth of the UCS line.

Innovate.  Need to add in a PCI Express card into a UCS blade server and you’ll be out of luck.  Cisco created the c-class SERIES rack server with intentions to offer customers the ability for larger I/O expansion.  They also recently added the capability to manage the c-class series rack servers with the Cisco UCS Manager allowing one management system for both the rack and blade server environments.  But what if Cisco created a PCI Express blade like IBM and HP offer.  Sure, this would take up a blade server slot, but it would allow for those users to keep it all in a UCS chassis instead of branching in a rack platform.  If Cisco didn’t want to create a PCI Express blade, what if they created a rack-based “shell” that allowed a user to populate with B200 blade servers.  The shell could be enabled to allow a user to have a couple of PCI Express expansion slots therefore providing the customer with the ability to standardize on the blade platform.  Don’t get me wrong – I love what Cisco has done with the Extended Memory on the B-250 blade server, but in order for them to grow in the market place they are going to have to innovate a lot more.

That concludes my thoughts on what Cisco needs to do to win the blade server market.  Let me know how you think they could do it in the comments below.