Although the Cisco UCS Express blade shares the same management system as other UCS servers, it doesn't integrate into Cisco UCS Manager tools. Instead, you use either a Web browser, as we did, or a command-line interface to control the blade -- turning it on and off, managing RAID settings, checking sensors such as air flow and temperature, and reviewing hardware error logs.
The Web-based tool also gives direct access to the console, and provides virtual CD-ROM capabilities for initial loading of operating systems.
We found the management simple and straightforward. Although our beta unit initially had an out-of-date firmware load that caused it to shut down abruptly, upgrading the firmware and getting the Cisco UCS Express to run smoothly was a simple operation with the Web-based GUI.
Large deployments of UCS Express blades will also be eased by enterprise-class features in the UCS management tools, such as integration with Active Directory, SNMP traps and configurable alarms, and access controls to increase security of the management plane of the blade.
Running virtual machines
Our Cisco UCS Express blade came with two 8GB SD flash cards, one to run the blade itself, and the other ready for the VMware hypervisor we loaded on the blade through the Web-based GUI.
We downloaded a Cisco-specific ESXi v5.0 image from VMware (at no charge) and installed the hypervisor to the SD flash cards in a matter of minutes once we gave up on making the KVM work on a Mac OS X system and jumped to a Windows client. This freed up the RAID array built into the test blade to be completely dedicated to virtual machine storage.
From there, we had the choice of running with the free ESXi license that VMware offers, or linking the Cisco UCS Express Blade into our existing VMware infrastructure. We started running stand-alone for a few weeks, then after VMware helped us upgrade to the latest and greatest (v5.1) version of VMware, we re-licensed the hypervisor so that we could migrate the UCS Express blade under the control of the vCenter management system.
For most enterprises, whether or not to upgrade the free license to a full VMware capability set will depend heavily on the kind of virtual machines that will run on the UCS Express Blade and the number of blades.
The vCenter management system offers a lot of benefits, but also comes at a cost, including licenses and the continual heartbeat and performance information sent back to vCenter. Many of the advantages of vCenter, such as easy deployment from templates, won't be quite so simple when working across a WAN to branch office locations, so network and system managers should consider the pros and cons before committing.