Essential guide to datacentre convergence

By Martin Courtney
24 Jan 2012 View Comments
Man in a datacentre

Similar arguments rage about the necessity of Transparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL), a proposed standard by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). It is designed to support Layer 2 multi-hop routing across the converged architecture as an alternative to the bandwidth-limiting spanning tree protocol (STP) when scaling out to larger datacentre networks.

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“Not having defined standards is detrimental to this technology [FCoE] gaining traction – that is very much a given,” says Emir Halilovic, program manager for networking and infrastructure at research company IDC. “There are different approaches for TRILL and back bridging, and we are in the early stages of development for those technologies.”

In other respects, the converged platforms on offer are similar. Cisco’s UCS is built on a device manager, interconnects (20 and 40 port FCoE switches), a fabric manager to handle storage networking across the Cisco SAN and unified fabrics, as well as extenders that connect the UCS blade chassis to Ethernet switches, and Emulex and QLogic converged network adapters (CNAs) for servers.

“Cisco’s UCS is basically an all-in-one device that has gained lots of traction, though we do not have the ability to directly measure sales because the company’s reporting is somewhat obscure,” explains Halilovic.

“It [Cisco UCS] does not really fit well with big datacentre environments, but it is a rather good general solution – perhaps better for mid-size or smaller datacentres. 
“There are also approaches to flattening the architecture, with the fabric type of solutions from Juniper, HP and FC specialists such as Brocade, which are bulking up on the Ethernet part of the bus.”

Juniper’s QFabric is built around a single ‘logical’ switch that connects network, storage and server resources. The first component was a top-of-rack 10GbE switch offering 64 ports, including 12 dual-purpose Ethernet and FC ports, which acts as the QF/Node component. It was first launched in February 2011.

Juniper followed it up with the QF/Interconnect, which provides the
high-speed chassis, and the QF/Director server-based common management and control software, in September.

The company is partnering IBM, NetApp, CA Technologies and VMware for the QFabric technology. And while some of the connections within QFabric are proprietary, outfacing connectivity at its perimeter use standard interfaces, meaning non-Juniper equipment can be plugged in.

Juniper says it constructs its QFabric differently from the other vendors “by making it look as though you are always on the same switch, whether you are doing provider backbone bridging, or the protocol is FCoE or iSCSI, providing all the necessary end-to-end flow control and lowering latency,” says Trevor Dearing, Juniper head of enterprise marketing.

The technology itself has been enough for Cisco to present a spoiler campaign aimed at pointing out its deficiencies, a sure sign that it is worried.

However, it is not just about the hardware: all the vendors in the converged datacentre architecture space are pushing the benefits of the reduced overhead associated with merging two previously separate networks. But that benefit is only as good as the management software that supposedly cuts down on the administration burden.

“Giving visibility over separate networks from a single management console is crucial to making this convergence a living thing,” says Halilovic.

“If you look at what HP, Juniper or Cisco are offering, the focus is on moving from hardware devices into software that links entities to provide a unified architecture that makes everyone’s life easier.”

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