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Cisco gives virtual servers virtual networking

Plays nice with VMware

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Cisco has announced a virtual Ethernet switch running as a virtual machine (VM) under ESX that enables VMs to move from server to server and take their Ethernet connections with them. It is just one in a raft of Cisco announcements focusing on virtual and consolidated data centres under its Data Centre 3.0 umbrella.

Cisco's VN-Link (Virtual Network Link) technology virtualises the connection between a VM and the switch. It ensures VM visibility and continued connectivity during a VMotion move. Also, network chargeback - which was running at a physical server level, according to Cisco - now runs at a VM level. The technology enables VMs to be members of particular VSANs (Virtual Storage Area Networks) and keep their VSAN affiliation if they are moved between physical servers. Different VSANs can have a different quality of storage service.

The Nexus 1000V, a software switch, is the first instantiation of the technology and has been jointly developed with VMware. There is also the Nexus 5000, a hardware switch, that uses VN-Link technology and achieves the same end without using server processing cycles. Cisco and VMware are providing various services to help the implementation of these products.

SAN fabric

Cisco is introducing 8Gbit/s Fibre Channel plug-in switch blades to its MDS9000 director line, catching up with Brocade which has had 8Gbit/s for some time. There are three products: a 24-port 8Gbit/s module; a 48-port module; and a module with 4 X 8Gbit/s ports and 44 X 4Gbit/s ports. They each offer wire-speed encryption between any Cisco MDS 9000 family 8-Gbps modules and are backwards compatible with existing 1, 2 and 4Gbit/s FC links. They'll be available before the end of the year with prices set by Cisco's partners.

The SAN OS operating software has been updated and re-named NX-OS as Cisco says it is now part of its data centre operating system. This is reflective of Cisco's storage marketing strategy, which is to combine storage and LAN networking in a single networking infrastructure, steadily moving over time to an all-Ethernet base. NX-OS has support for 8Gbit/s Fibre Channel links, as well as Secure Erase, which deletes data on a SAN's disks so that it is virtually impossible to recover.

WAAS

Cisco's WAAS (Wide Area Application Services) has been updated to handle VMWare virtual desktop images (VDIs) and serve them to remote offices better, meaning less strain on the network. Cisco still believes its integration of WAAS with a virtualised Windows server software and facilities like the provision of printing services at the branch is the way ahead, a combination of edge services and WAN acceleration.

There are three new branch appliances: desktop WAVE-274 and WAVE-474 and rackmount WAVE-574. Cisco says it is the WAN acceleration revenue market leader, quoting Infonetics Research, and has Microsoft validation and support whereas a competing vendor has neither. (I think this is a dig at Riverbed which, coincidentally, also says it is the market leader and has just announced its intent to take its WAN acceleration technology into the data centre and dedupe primary storage.) WAAS product pricing and availability information wasn't immediately available to us.

Summary

The SAN changes essentially amount to an 8Gbit/s catch up with Brocade and a rebranding exercise. The WAAS extension to support VMS is predicated on virtual desktops becoming popular, and a lot of suppliers are making similar bets: 3PAR, IBM, and LeftHand Networks amongst them. These suppliers are stressing their ability to store VDIs economically in disk space terms. Cisco is not.

The virtual switch idea seems to complete the third leg of the server application virtualisation tripod. Applications need server resources, storage resources and network resources and all three can now be separated from their underlying physical manifestation, enabling greater flexibility, scalability and management. Emulex has virtualised SAN connections through its Host Bus Adapters (HBAs) but that only applies to the Fibre Channel world. Cisco has virtualised Ethernet connections and that should apply to LAN links, iSCSI and, in the future, most probably to FCoE (Fibre Channel over Ethernet).

That is something Brocade will have to respond to and we surely can look forward to canny Brocade CEO Michael Klayko coming up with goods, having piloted the good ship Brocade ahead of Cisco's storage network vessel in the past few months. ®

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