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Virtual Connect revs

In addition to the new rack box, HP is also debuting a second rev of its Virtual Connect I/O virtualization for its BladeSystem blade servers. With some engineering tweaks, the box now supports two 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports per blade server that can be carved up into four separate virtual NICs, for a total of eight virtual NICs per blade.

Virtual Connect, you will recall, was part of HP's "Blade Everything" strategy, launched in the summer of 2006 along with its then-new c7000 blade chassis and family of half-height blade servers. The c7000 and its related blades, as well as the "Shorty" c3000 chassis for small and medium businesses, have been key factors in HP's taking back market share from IBM, which was kicking the tar out of HP in blades for a few years.

Virtual Connect started shipping in March 2007, and it is one of the features that customers took a shining to. Small wonder, given that what it does is allow customers to wire up blade servers, network switches, and storage area networks once and then change them virtually (rather than physically) when something has to change.

This idea, and this technology, is not new. In fact, it was developed for the NonStop fault tolerant server line from the formerly independent Tandem Computers, a relatively small fish in the server space (founded by ex-HPers) that ended being eaten by Compaq, which in turn was eaten by HP (Burp!). And the idea is relatively simple when you say it: Virtual Connect virtualizes the Ethernet MAC addresses and Fibre Channel worldwide IDs, which means that once a server has been set up to link to a particular Ethernet network or SAN, it never has to change its link to the Virtual Connect module. Any changes happen inside the module.

That's so 2007. Here we are in late 2008, and customers - particularly HPC shops - are interested in lots of bandwidth. And they might take a second look at the new Virtual Connect Flex-10 Ethernet module for BladeSystem blade servers because it allows them to configure up to eight virtual Ethernet links across two 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports on a blade. They can assign bandwidth to each link in 100 Mbit/sec increments. Of course, that is provided they have lots of money to play around. The Virtual Connect Flex-10 module costs $12,199 and the related Virtual Connect 4 Gbit Fibre Channel module for storage costs $9,499. Each module can handle the traffic needs of a single BladeSystem chassis, which can support up to 16 half-height Xeon or Opteron blades.

For now, the ProLiant BL495c blade launched in early September, is the only blade that has the Flex-10 Gigabit Ethernet NICs built into its board. (HP didn't tell anyone about this back in September, at least not publicly, but you can bet the salespeople in the channel mentioned it). And customers using other HP ProLiant blades can buy a mezzanine card called the NC532m that provides the Flex-10 support on extra NICs in the card for $699. And customers using the BL495c can also use the mezzanine card to add even more virtualized, high-speed NICs to their blades.

Why would anyone need so much network bandwidth? Because if you virtualize and consolidate servers, your bandwidth needs go up proportionately to the number of virtual machines you cram onto a blade or rack server. Gary Thome, director of BladeSystem strategy at HP, says that using the Flex-10 features can also save customers money in virtualized environments. Setting up the average six network connections that customers have on a virtualized two-socket blade server these days costs half as much using the Flex-10 feature, according to Thome, and delivers a lot more bandwidth, too.

And because everyone is counting watts and money these days, Thome adds that when you take out those Gigabit Ethernet NICs, their switches, and move to Flex-10, it can remove up to 240 watts of power out of a 16-blade BladeSystem c7000 chassis; that works out to 3,150 kilowatt-hours per year, and that's real money in a data center. (Almost $600 at New York City prices.) Of course, the real question is how much more expensive the Flex-10 gear is compared to Gigabit Ethernet alternatives that burn more juice. I think we all know how that is going to work out. That $600 won't put much a dent into the cost of Flex-10. But, there are other benefits, and that is what HP is counting on customers to see and then cut the checks.

One last thing. As part of the announcements today, HP is also rolling out a storage bundle for BladeSystem blades, which includes two StorageWorks 3 Gbit/sec SAS switches and an MSA2000sa disk array that sports up to 192 TB of disk capacity. This bundle costs $9,999. And one tiny thing more. The Virtual Connect Fibre Channel module has been tweaked so it can allocate storage on each individual virtual machine on a blade. Specifically, each blade server can have up to 128 separate SAN storage volumes assigned to it, and these can be allocated to each VM running on the blade. ®

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