Dell pairs with Xsigo on virtual I/O

Parries IBM, HP

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Xsigo Systems - which back in September 2007 launched an in-band I/O virtualization appliance that cuts the hard-coded links between servers, storage, and networks and completely virtualizes those connections - has landed its first tier one server partner and distributor: Dell.

Dell is particularly excited by its partnership with Xsigo because unlike rivals IBM and Hewlett-Packard in the blade server market, it does not have its own I/O virtualization gadgetry. And technically speaking, Dell still doesn't have any, because it has not acquired the upstart Xsigo, which is itself a bit of a mystery unless the company's owners want more money than Dell is willing to pay. Presuming it was willing to pay at all, of course.

The fact is, Dell needs what Xsigo has on the I/O virtualization front if it wants to compete with HP and IBM. HP created its VirtualConnect I/O virtualization for its c-Class BladeSystem blades and got the technology, which virtualizes the links from blade servers to network switches and SANs, out the door about six months late in February 2007. IBM got into the virtual I/O racket for its blade customers back in November 2007 with its own Open Fabric Manager for its BladeCenter blade servers.

Both HP and IBM have reportedly dabbled with the Xsigo VP780 I/O director - IBM certified it as being compatible with its server lines soon after the 2007 launch, and HP followed suit soon after. But Dell has taken a more direct approach and inked a deal to resell the appliance to its customers as options with its PowerEdge servers and for its PowerVault and EqualLogic disk arrays.

Because Xsigo's I/O Director is a rack-mounted appliance, it isn't restricted to blade servers, as the I/O virtualization technologies from HP and IBM currently are. IBM and HP could create appliances out of the hardware and software embodied in the respective VirtualConnect and Open Fabric Manager products and make appliances similar to what Xsigo has cooked up. And considering the number of rack servers that these companies still sell - and the vast installed base that would love to have easier server, storage, and network management made possible by virtualizing the links between machines without having to move to blades - it is a bit of a wonder why HP or IBM hasn't snapped up Xsigo. (Playing hard to get, no doubt).

"What we are excited about with the Xsigo appliance is the openness," explains Rick Becker, vice president of software and solutions at Dell's Product Group. "This works across form factors and vendors, and in a heterogeneous data center, this can mange it all no matter what logo is on the box."

Dell has integrated its OpenManage software to link into the Xsigo VP780 I/O Director appliance, and the two companies set up some combined reference accounts using their respective products together in the lead up to the announcement. Thus far, Xsigo hasn't hit the mainstream yet, with only 30 customers and another 40 trials. But getting the backing of Dell and having an architecture that can virtualize the network and SAN links for both physical and virtual servers, as the Xsigo appliance does, could mean that Xsigo has a much larger customer base soon.

The base VP780 appliance from Xsigo costs $30,000 and comes in a 4U rack chassis. It has links to reach out to 24 server ports plus 15 I/O modules slots, each with four Gigabit Ethernet, one 10 Gigabit Ethernet, and two 4 Gb Fibre Channel ports. The I/O modules also include an SSL offload module. The Ethernet modules support iSCSI disk links, and the Fibre Channel links go out to SANs. The box can link to an expansion switch that allows it to be hooked up to hundreds of servers. On the server side, each server linking into the appliance has to be equipped with a virtual NIC and a virtual HBA, which uses InfiniBand as a transport back into the appliance.

According to Becker, Dell is also toying with the idea of using the appliance in parallel supercomputing setups, since it can also do server-to-server switching at 20 Gb/sec dual-rate speeds on InfiniBand links.

Dell's direct sales team and the Dell channel have been authorized to push the I/O virtualization appliance, and given the state of the economy, they are going to be focusing on the amount of iron and capital expenditures that the I/O appliance can save companies. In a typical setup of 120 servers, says Becker, the servers are each equipped with four Fibre Channel ports and eight Ethernet ports. (This sounds a bit heavy on the ports, but this is Dell's example, not mine).

The I/O adapters for this - not including the servers and storage - come to $1.4m. Now, replacing that with two Xsigo virtual I/O appliances, which puts two Xsigo ports on each server and a single wire that carries Ethernet and Fibre Channel data, the capital outlay to link those same 120 servers to switches and their storage comes to $316,000. Now, add in operating expenses. Dell reckons all those adapters being gone means about $100,000 less in power costs over three years, and administration costs (assuming I/O gets tweaked twice a year on average per server) go down by $389,000 because the I/O is virtualized in the appliance and is much easier to tweak. That is a savings of $1.6m over three years for virtual I/O compared to physical I/O.

The Dell-Xsigo partnership is non-exclusive. Which means IBM and HP can do similar deals tomorrow, if they want. Or maybe EMC or Cisco Systems will swoop down and buy Xsigo outright, just for spite. ®

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