Where will Cisco put Whiptail flash array after $415m buy?

Cisco has announced it will buy flash array maker Whiptail for $415m in 2014, but how will it incorporate a standalone array into its UCS server platform?

Cisco has announced it is to buy flash array maker Whiptail for $415m, with the deal expected to close in the first quarter of 2014.

The networking giant has said that Whiptail’s flash array technology will be incorporated into its Cisco UCS server products but Cisco has not outlined exactly how that will happen.

Whiptail makes Accela and Invicta multi-level cell (MLC) flash arrays aimed at the midrange to enterprise markets that come in 1U and 2U form factors and scale from 1.5TB to 72TB. Whiptail added an SME version – the WT-1100 – in June this year. All these products are standalone flash arrays.

Meanwhile, Cisco’s UCS products range from SME to enterprise level servers that are differentiated by numbers of processors, memory slots and connectivity. They all come, however, with a small number (two or four) of disk drive slots on-board.

Cisco’s press release on the acquisition said the move is aimed at bringing high performance storage closer to the servers to cut the latency associated with existing shared storage setups.

It said: “Cisco is evolving the UCS architecture by integrating data acceleration capability into the compute layer. Integrating Whiptail's memory systems with UCS at a hardware and manageability level will simplify customers' datacentre environments by delivering the required performance in a fraction of the datacentre floor space with unified management for provisioning and administration.”

Flash has been the hot storage topic in the datacentre over the past couple of years. Its ability to handle data at much faster rates than spinning disk has seen organisations buy flash arrays, mixed hybrid flash/HDD hardware and put flash storage in servers in PCIe format.

Cisco is clearly responding to this trend with the Whiptail buy and it looks most likely to offer the hardware in a format that slots in alongside, and deeply integrated with, its server blades. But, given the variety of options for flash storage placement that exists it means the company will only be able to offer customers one of them.

Other suppliers – for example, Dell and HP – offer flash acceleration for their servers but these are located internally. Cisco looks set to be the first server maker to also offer an external flash array alongside its blades.

There is also the fact that flash storage is only really cost-effective for the hottest data in the datacentre. It is common for less frequently used but required data to be on various classes of spinning disk. That means UCS will need to be supported by another storage array in some scenarios.

The Whiptail acquisition also raises question marks over Cisco’s relationships with EMC and NetApp. Currently, Cisco is in partnership with EMC and VMware in the VCE (Virtual Computing Environment) joint venture that bundles together Cisco servers and networking hardware, EMC storage arrays and VMware virtualisation software. It also partners with NetApp to provide a similar product bundle with its storage.

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