Cisco's Intersight platform brings datacenter management to the cloud

Cisco makes a big bet on transitioning its datacenter management business to the cloud, as part of its overall shift towards SaaS services.

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Cisco on Thursday is unveiling Intersight, a cloud-based management platform for its Unified Computing System (UCS) and HyperFlex Systems.

Under development for about 18 months, Intersight represents "the culmination but also the starting point" of a multi-year effort on Cisco's part to bring cloud-based subscription services to more and more of its customers, Todd Brannon, marketing director for unified computing at Cisco, told ZDNet.

"This is a really big deal in terms of how we deliver value to customers," he said, "as we transition our systems management... from an on-prem, shrink-wrapped software approach to managment as a service, software as a service."

The transition will be critical for Cisco as it seeks out ways to keep its business growing. Last month, the company reported its quarterly revenues were down on a year-over-year basis. At the same time, Cisco generated 31 percent of its total revenue from recurring offers, up nearly four points from a year earlier. Revenue from subscriptions increased 18 percent to account for more than half of its software revenue.

Cicsco makes the case that cloud-based IT management is effectively inevitable, as it becomes more complicated thanks to a variety of factors like more distributed application architectures, virtualization and a new demand for edge computing.

"What we're observing is when we combine all of this together -- the scale, complexity, the speed of modern operations -- it's beginning to outstrip the limits of human capability to manage it all," Brannon said.

He likened the current transition in IT to the shift from propeller-powered planes to jet-powered aircraft.

"There came a point where planes were flying so fast with so much power, pilots couldn't control it with traditional stick," he said. "Virtualization was essentially the jet engine of the data center."

Currently, Cisco datacenter customers manage their systems with different pieces of software, such as UCS Central and UCS Director. Intersight incorporates all of those capabilities into one subscription service.

Cisco has an "architectural advantage" over incumbents in the server space, Brannon said, given that UCS is already completely manageable and programmable from the cloud. Cisco is "leading the way in terms of systems management architecture with this platform," he said.

Additionally, he pointed out Cisco has experience rolling out this kind of service after acquiring Meraki several years ago for cloud-controlled networking. Just as Meraki appealed to mid-market customers on the networking side, Cisco expects Intersight to open up opportunities to expand its business with smaller customers. Brannon noted that already, 30 percent of customers buying HyperFlex are brand new to computing from Cisco.

At launch, Intersight features a customizable user interface that can be adjusted based on role-based access policies and needs. It also offers an enhanced support system, enabling Cisco support teams to scan customers' environments and proactively alert them about issues.

Over time, powered by machine learning, Intersight will get better at providing actionable intelligence. It will learn from the collective experience of UCS users, as well as best practices of Cisco experts, enabling predictive analytics and resource utilization.

The platform adheres to Cisco InfoSec security standards to help protect communication between the platform and managed endpoints. Intersight is built on an extensible architecture with OData standards-based RESTful APIs and connector framework simplifying third party software and hardware integrations.

Starting in Q4, Cisco is offering an Intersight "Base Edition" available free of charge to UCS and HyperFlex customers. It includes global health monitoring and inventory, a customizable dashboard, the HyperFlex Installer to quickly deploy clusters, and the ability to context-launch the UCS Manager, IMC and HyperFlex Connect element managers.

Cisco will also offer an "Essentials Edition" that adds on policy-based configuration with service profiles, firmware management with scheduled updates, Hardware Compatibility Listing (HCL) compliance checks and upgrade recommendations, among other things.

Eventually, Cisco plans to develop a version of Intersight that customers can host themselves -- effectively a private cloud for systems management. "We know there are certain customers that are never going to want to connect to a cloud platform hosted by a vendor to manage their infrastructure," Brannon said.

Cisco also plans to eventually offer a third consumption option offered via channel partners.

Ultimately, Brannon said, "We've got to enlist the machines to manage the machines -- this is our long-term vision."

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