The Secret to How Cisco Took the #1 Blade Server Spot

IDC and Cisco confirmed this week that Cisco has taken the #1 x86 blade server spot in North America for Q1 in 2014 with 40% revenue market share according to a recent CRN report.  This is quite an accomplishment especially since Cisco has only been reporting their numbers for 3 years.  So you might wonder – what is the secret to Cisco’s success?  I have a few ideas (right or wrong) that might shed some light on why Cisco is having success in their blade server business. 

Cisco’s UCS Design is Different

This one is kind of a no-brainer, but when you look at Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS) you see that it is a different server design compared to others in the marketplace.  The overall architecture design is implemented as a “system” instead of individual components.  To explain, all other blade servers on the market use integrated networking / storage fabrics within the blade chassis whereas Cisco extends the fabric outside each chassis to a pair of Fabric Interconnects (FI) which not only act to switch the network traffic for the blade chassis but also acts as the centralized management for the server infrastructure. Compared to other blade server offerings on the market, Cisco’s design could be perceived as a simpler model.  When you combine that with its uniqueness, Cisco’s UCS is an interesting product to look at.

Everyone At Cisco Wants to Sell UCS

I’ve heard stories in the past that Cisco was giving UCS chassis to key customers.  If that was true, it’s pretty smart marketing because it makes it easy for customers to buy more .  Regardless of if whether or not Cisco is seeding top customers with UCS, the reality is that they are putting a lot of focus on selling UCS.  I used to joke that even the receptionist at a Cisco office would talk about UCS to you, but the truth of the matter is it appears that every Cisco employee believes that UCS is the best thing since sliced bread.  (If you don’t believe that is true – try and say something negative on social media about UCS and see how quickly you are lit up.)  Between getting a free product to try and hearing enough people saying something is great the results are the same – you are you’re going to want to try it.  IN addition to having employees who are passionate about selling UCS, Cisco has done a great job of getting their partners on the bandwagon.  It seems like every week another partner has a press release obtaining certification to sell UCS so I can imagine Cisco offers a really good incentive program to sell UCS.  Focus, passion and man power always leads to success.

Fewer Products to Sell Allows More Focus on UCS

I know this one will probably prompt some negative feedback from Cisco, but this is a thought I’ve had for a long time.  Cisco doesn’t have as many products to sell so they can focus more on selling UCS.  Yes, I know that Cisco has a large product portfolio, but when you summarize it they fall into 4 groups: Networking, Security, Collaboration or Servers.  Not only do HP, Dell and IBM/Lenovo sell the same type of solutions as Cisco but they also have PCs, peripherals, software, and storage making it harder to focus on “blade server sales.”  For the Cisco sales teams, fewer products means more focused selling – especially when it comes to blade servers.

The Network Is Cisco So Adding Servers is Easier

Cisco has been the market leader in networking for years and have a presence in most IT environments.  If the network is down nearly everything is affected, so in many environments the network infrastructure is off limits – once it is stable, it is not changed.  The networking teams in many organizations are vital in architecture discussions since they are tasked with insuring that any additions to the environment do not affect network uptime or performance.  When it comes down to it, the networking teams rule the datacenter – which is yet another reason that Cisco has been successful in selling UCS.  While not always the case, Cisco servers working with Cisco networking could be seen as posing less of a risk to the network.

Final Thoughts

These are just a few observations about Cisco’s success that I’ve accumulated over the past few years.  Did I get it right?  Do you have different ideas or opposing thoughts – I welcome any comments below.  Congratulations to Cisco for doing a great job increasing their footprint in the blade server market.  It’s obvious HP, Dell and IBM/Lenovo have their work cut out for them.  Taking a look at why Cisco has had success with UCS may help other vendors grow blade server market share in the future. 



Kevin Houston is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of  He has over 17 years of experience in the x86 server marketplace.  Since 1997 Kevin has worked at several resellers in the Atlanta area, and has a vast array of competitive x86 server knowledge and certifications as well as an in-depth understanding of VMware and Citrix virtualization.  Kevin works for Dell as a Server Sales Engineer covering the Global Enterprise market.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this blog are personal views and may or may not reflect any of the contributors’ employer’s positions. Furthermore, the content is not reviewed, approved or published by any employer.

11 thoughts on “The Secret to How Cisco Took the #1 Blade Server Spot

  1. TomLassen

    Nice try Kevin, but simply seeding units does not result in market leadership. The real secret to the success of UCS is that it provides compelling value through converging traditionally stove-piped components combined with simplified management. Add the fact that UCS holds over 95 performance benchmark records and it becomes clear why Cisco UCS is the market leader

  2. Matt Wallace

    VCE? Cisco made a partnership that let them ride a wave with two extremely strong (one nearly monopoly-strong at the time) vendors to sell a turnkey converged stack. Making it easier for IT departments to one-stop-shop without having converged infrastructure experts on staff.

  3. Joe Onisick

    KN, this is not an accurate comparison as you are leaving out the ToR switching required by the Dell chassis to connect amongst themselves. This function is handled natively within the UCS system. This is a design drawing Dell, IBM, and HP love to use to misconstrue reality.
    Joe Onisick – TME Cisco INSBU

  4. Jay Cuthrell

    4 more reasons: HDS UCP, NetApp FlexPod, EMC VSPEX and VCE Vblock

    That’s _three_ different reference architectures and one all-in-one manufactured converged infrastructure option that includes networking as well. So, embracing lots of storage options is also a huge reason Cisco UCS has taken so much market share so quickly.

  5. Jason

    Disclaimer: CTO of a Cisco Partner that sells a lot of UCS.

    Some points of clarification here. First, the network team doesn’t make server purchase decisions in almost any organization. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen that. This actually hurt Cisco UCS sales in the beginning. Since they had “Cisco” on them it was often pushed to the network team to make a decision which caused confusion.

    Second, Cisco rarely ever seeds units. They do it on occasion but every manufacturer does it. HP is probably the worst, at least from my experience (or best, if you’re a customer). But seeding servers like this is almost always a disaster. The manufacturer rarely does a good job of setup/implementation so they go unused. I haven’t seen Cisco seed any units in a good while.

    Third, Cisco has a ton of products. While maybe not as many as Dell since they don’t do mice and desktops they have more than most people realize and it’s growing every day.

    The real reason UCS has seen such great adoption is simple. Cisco made something different. Blades have a very bad connotation to a lot of people. We fought that every day early on until people realized that UCS wasn’t like other “traditional” blade platforms. It’s truly different. Those that see the FIs or FEX as downsides don’t understand the architecture and believe me, the competitors tried their best to FUD FUD FUD that early on but most of that has been stamped out.

    What’s happened over the last 3 years is just the beginning. If I was HP/Dell/Lenovo I’d be more worried about the next 3 years. ACI+UCS+Invicta could get very, very interesting.

  6. Jason

    That’s old but also makes assumptions. Why are 14 FEX bad? They have no IPs. No management. You don’t even know they are there. Only people that compare them to switches in other blade chassis list them as a problem. While it looks like the FIs are a Top-of-Rack problem they aren’t. Look to the right. When I start doing east/west traffic such as just vMotion, or VSAN, or SDN services where does the traffic go? Up to the external network and then back. Now you’re putting that load up there where it shouldn’t be. That’s the beauty of the FIs.

    These are the types of diagrams that competitive sales teams would love to put in front of customers early on in the UCS days. This type of FUD is easily disproven once you understand the UCS architecture.

    How many things do I manage on the right? How many devices with IPs? How many steps to do a firmware upgrade? Where in there is my single point of management for those chassis (and the next 4 I want to buy)? These are more important to most people than 900Gb of north/south throughput. Those are the real customer challenges.

  7. mikestanley

    Quick thoughts from the customer side of things.

    My former employer made large (52 blades) UCS purchase in 2011 as part of a pair of FlexPods. Before that, aside from a couple of Dell blade chassis, we were completely pizza box on the server side of things.

    While our initial purchase was certainly driven by a desire to move towards a converged infrastructure model, we moved away from that just as quickly, but doubled down on UCS by making additional large purchases.

    I would say it did matter to use that UCS and its design is different, simpler as you say, and I’d say also more elegant.

    We also received no seed units. I wish we had – I could have spent some of that money on additional Citrix licenses. :-)

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  9. nullvector

    I just implemented some more UCS for Oracle Databases and some new VMware clusters. The strong point for me is consolidation, for one. Rack space, cabling, etc. The other strong point is speed of implementation for new hardware. As soon as you get the blade, you’re pretty much already online, as long as you’ve developed your templates correctly, and have SAN boot as an option. Taking a blade out of the box and having it online as a server in under 30 minutes is pretty compelling. One drawback I’d say is cost, compared to equivalent pizza boxes, but not needing to re-cable, re-provision LAN/Fibre ports, and taking another 2U in a rack for one server…those make up for the cost difference.

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