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Cisco Pitches Virtual Switches For Next-Gen Data Centers

Company sees new virtualization switch as heart of its Data Center 3.0 architecture.

MEMORY AREA NETWORKS
When Cisco announced its Data Center 3.0 strategy in July, its most far-fetched prediction seemed to be that networks eventually will connect CPUs to remote memory banks, not just to remote storage or traditional LANs. The theory is that just as printers and disk drives moved from local devices to network resources, so will all other components. That would mean the end of servers as we know them.

There's no sign of such a revolution in the Nexus or Brocade's DCX, although both vendors do see high-performance computing and the network traffic from grid computing clusters as one important use for a virtual server, and the thing most likely to make them add InfiniBand support. Cisco believes that Ethernet is sufficient for clusters involved in applications such as video rendering, but InfiniBand's lower latency and overhead would be needed for real-time, event-driven applications such as split-second, algorithmic stock trading.

I/O Virtualization Products
All support Fibre Channel SANs and Ethernet LANs. They differ in physical networks and where virtual networks convert to real ones.
Product Physical Networks Virtual Networks Aggregation Point
Cisco Nexus Ethernet Fibre Channel, Ethernet Switch (hardware)
Brocade DCX Fibre Channel (now), Ethernet (second half 2008) Fibre Channel, Ethernet Switch (hardware)
Xsigo Director InfiniBand Ethernet, Fibre Channel, InfiniBand Appliance (hardware)
3Leaf Systems V-8000 InfiniBand (now), Ethernet (planned) Ethernet, Fibre Channel, InfiniBand Server (software)

3Leaf Systems has announced a product that's closest to Cisco's vision, in the form of a dedicated network for connecting servers at the CPU layer. However, its product also falls short of the virtual network that Brocade, Cisco, and 3Leaf all envision. The CPUs' connections to memory and to other CPUs (on multiprocessor machines) require low-latency, high-bandwidth links that don't go through a hypervisor or OS, which would entail a physically separate network.

3Leaf uses InfiniBand and a proprietary chip that sits on the CPU's data bus to interconnect CPUs and servers. Even InfiniBand's low latency and high bandwidth can't match the speed of the CPU's memory bus, so in addition to providing the InfiniBand connection, the chip caches data from the memory of other servers in the cluster. The hard part is knowing what to cache for particular applications, which is where most of 3Leaf's proprietary technology comes in.

The 3Leaf chip was designed to plug in to Advanced Micro Devices' Torrenza sockets, which give third-party components direct access to the CPU's data bus. Intel has a similar technology and has invested in 3Leaf to ensure support for that, too. 3Leaf expects prototypes by March and chips shipping by the end of the year. It has signed up server vendors including Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard as partners, with hopes they'll build the chips into servers.

Meantime, Cisco isn't abandoning the Catalyst 6500, though it's now describing it as a service switch. The company last week unveiled upgrades to two of the Catalyst 6500 blades, boosting Power-over-Ethernet wattage so the wireless blade can support 802.11n access points, and giving its Wide Area Application Services a software client for accelerating WAN traffic to mobile devices. Cisco plans to keep adding service blades to the Catalyst, though it probably won't go beyond 10 Gbps. The higher speeds will be reserved for the Nexus at the data center core.

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