Unified Communications on Cisco UCS: The final vDC frontier

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Virtualization has increasingly been unifying not only servers, storage and network, but also disaster recovery and desktops. But even as traditional PBXs have transitioned to IP communications, voice remains a silo with separate infrastructure and management from the rest of the virtualized data center. That changes on April 15 when select Cisco Unified Communications 8.0(2) applications are supported as VMware virtual machines running on Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS).

Unified Communications

A Unified Communications (UC) system typically incorporates Voice over IP (VoIP) along with other capabilities such as video, conferencing, voicemail and messaging, mobile applications, customer care, TelePresence, presence and enterprise social software. The voice traffic is carried over the same switches and routers as the data network and users purchase IP phones that plug into the network and run off of the UC system. Organizations can use a private data network such as MPLS or, potentially, the Internet although this can lead to varying quality.

The primary cost savings from UC typically are related to eliminating a parallel network of circuits required to support traditional Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) voice along with reduced maintenance and service fees as well as providing flexibility and ease for growth. Additionally, in a PBX-based system a user's identity for the phone system stays with the phone jack, meaning that a technician is required to make changes such as moves between offices. With UC, the identity stays with the phone so users just plug in their phone at the new location and are up and running.

A UC system typically includes multiple physical servers and gateways for managing calls, voice mail, mobility and other applications. Still other servers are required for redundancy. Prior to the technological innovations introduced in VMware vSphere 4, the high intolerance for latency precluded enterprise virtualization of UC and other real-time applications.

In the past two months, both Siemens and Mitel have announced virtualized UC solutions that take advantage of the real-time performance enhancements of vSphere. Cisco is following suit, albeit with a very cautious "crawl, walk, run" approach. IP Telephony, Messaging, Presence, Mobility, Customer Care, and Network Management Suite will be supported on VMware ESXi 4 with Cisco UCS half-width B-200 blades. Support on Unified Computing System C210-series will follow in phases, and support for virtualizing the remaining UC products is on the roadmap.

Virtualized Unified Communications Benefits

The benefits of virtualizing UC parallel those of virtualizing data servers. Server consolidation itself, of course, leads to significant less expense in hardware, rack space, maintenance, cabling, network ports, power and cooling. But it also enables UC to leverage the HA capabilities of vSphere rather than requiring redundant hardware and application level failover capabilities, as well as vSphere Site Recovery Manager to continuously replicate UC virtual machines to a disaster recovery site where they are nearly instantly up and running in the event of data center failure.

Seattle University is piloting Cisco Communications Manager, Unity and Mobility servers running as VMs on its UCS. "We've been interested for some time in implementing Unified Communications," said Mark Kawakami, Network Services Manager at SunGard Higher Education supporting Seattle University. "It will enable us to eliminate 14 server racks across the campus and the requirement to run two sets of copper for both network and phone, end the support of 4,000 phones and do away with our $160,000 analog phone system annual maintenance contract. The reduced costs and increased reliability and agility we achieve from deploying UC on UCS made the solution overwhelmingly compelling."

Other organizations are similarly intrigued with the prospect of running either existing VoIP or new UC implementations on UCS due to the significant CAPEX and OPEX savings. For example, a physical Cisco MCS UC server lists for $24,000 while a UCS half-width blade lists for $13,000 − $15,000 depending upon configuration. Of course, much larger cost reductions result from consolidating UC virtual machines onto the UCS blades.

While virtualized UC still requires separate management from Unified Communications Systems Manager (UCSM) or VMware vCenter, it slashes the number of servers to administer. It does necessitate administrative competency in VMware virtualization including provisioning, upgrading, monitoring and patching of virtual infrastructure.

Cisco UC on UCS General Parameters

  1. Cisco UC applications supported in a virtual environment include: Unified Communications Manager 8.0(2), Unified contact Manager Express 8.0(2), Cisco Unified Presence 8.0(1), Cisco Unity 7.0(2), Cisco Unity Connection 8.0(2)
  2. The only hypervisor supported initially is VMware vSphere ESXi4 which includes more of the real-time enhancements required for UC than ESX. Any other hypervisor versions, products or vendors are not supported.
  3. Bare-mental/physical/non-virtualized installs are not supported.
  4. Dedicated CPU/RAM/Storage is required for the VMs, oversubscription is not yet supported
  5. VMware supported SAN storage is required.
  6. 1-4 Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) VMs per server dependent on model, with MCS 7845 parity per VM (7.5K users)
  7. Application co-residency TBD – goal is "mix and match".
  8. Only "Basic" features supported (e.g. copy VM, restart VM, HA, SRM), "Advanced" features are deferred to future versions (e.g. VMotion, snapshots, DRM, templates, DPM, etc.)
  9. The hardware BIOS, firmware and drivers are managed by UCS and VMware, not by CUCM.
  10. The boot order is controlled by the VMware virtual machine's BIOS instead of by the CUCM Application.

For further information, see Cisco DocWiki

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6 Responses to Unified Communications on Cisco UCS: The final vDC frontier

  1. Great post, Steve. There are huge savings to be made and big service availability and performance improvements – win:win – from the project I’ve been working on with a global bank 🙂

  2. Steve Kaplan says:

    Thanks Steve. I plan to follow this post up with some in-depth economic comparisons once we have some real-life projects to evaluate.

  3. Colin Steele says:

    The benefits seem clear, in theory, but UC is still a pretty emerging market on its own, and virtualizing UC has some significant challenges (as we’ve covered in the past: http://searchservervirtualization.techtarget.com/news/article/0,289142,sid94_gci1374867,00.html). What’s the target market for this, and when do you think mainstream adoption will start?

  4. Aaron Delp says:

    Great overview and information Steve! Thank you very much for posting!

  5. Steve Kaplan says:

    Thanks Aaron, I appreciate that.

  6. Steve Kaplan says:

    Colin,
    Thanks for sending the link to last year’s article by Weiss; I do recall reading it and liking it. As mentioned in my post, Cisco is taking a very conservative approach to virtualizing UC, including limiting support to only VMware ESXi 4 (as the hypervisor running on UCS) in order to ensure the latency concerns of real-time applications are handled. Our best practices include additionally using either the Palo adapter or Nexus 1000V so that we can map QOS queues to the vNIC.
    As far as the market goes, we’re already seeing traction in two ways. Customers considering purchasing the Cisco UCS as a virtual infrastructure hosting platform, such as Seattle University, are further incentivized by the benefits of running UC as part of their virtual infrastructure. On the flip side, we’re seeing organizations that already purchased UCS now having incentive to add Cisco UC to their vDC. I anticipate vUnified Communications quickly becoming a substantial business.

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