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HP chases Cisco with ProCurve blade switches

Networking convergence. Almost

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Hewlett-Packard is getting its converged networking act together.

Today, the company announced two new ProCurve switches for its BladeSystem c-Class chassis, and one of them sports 10 Gigabit Ethernet connectivity, with the promise of supporting converged enhanced Ethernet, the soon-to-be-standardized protocol that rips off lots of goodies from the InfiniBand networking alternative and that allows the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) SAN protocol to be run over 10 GE switch fabric to link servers to storage.

The c-Class chassis includes the business-sized c7000, which can house up to sixteen half-eight or eight full-height blade servers, and the SMB-targeting c3000, which has half as many blades. We can debate whether or not FCoE and CEE are ready for primetime - or if customers are ready to cut checks for switches they employ it. But in the market of ideas, Cisco Systems' "California" Unified Computing System is getting some serious share, and HP's "Matrix" blade-storage hybrid, which came out in April, is not. And a lot of that is about HP's Matrix setup missing FCoE support.

But don't get too excited. While the ProCurve 6120GX 10 Gigabit Ethernet blade switch debuting today is being billed as "CEE-ready," it does not, out of the box, support the FCoE protocol. And that's because, according to Matt Zanner, director of marketing for HP's ProCurve business unit, the prevailing customer sentiment right now is the classic "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

"FCoE holds an immense amount of promise, and HP is very committed to open standards," explains Zanner. "We are engaged in the FCoE and CEE standards and we are building in the architectural features for these into the 6120XG. When the feature set is ready for CEE, we will be ready as soon as the standards are ratified."

Cisco is of the opinion that its interpretation of CEE, as implemented in its Nexus free-standing switches and the UCS boxes, is not only compliant with the standard, but ready for deployments. HP says not so fast.

"Converged network adapters are in pilots and proofs of concept, but enterprises are not quite ready," says Zanner. "Our belief is that sometime in the middle to the latter half of 2010, you will see customers deploy larger pilots testing out CEE technologies."

Given this, HP says that it is not as far behind the market as Cisco would like to lead everyone to believe. Cisco has said that it expects a relatively fast ramp for its California systems, faster than its Ethernet switching business grew and faster than VoIP too.

Through the end of the June quarter, Cisco had over 1,000 customers who have implemented its Nexus 7000 switches, and about a third of them have implemented unified Fibre Channel-Ethernet fabrics. Cisco has also said that "well over 100 customers" have deployed the Nexus 1000V virtual switches, but it has not said how many UCS machines have shipped, either as pilots or production machines.

The ProCurve 6120XG blade switch is a layer 2 Ethernet switch that has sixteen 10 GE downlinks and eight 10 GE SFP+ uplinks, including one dual-personality CX4/SFP+ link and two 10 GE cross-connects. It supports the IPv6 and IPv4 network protocols, has VLAN and tagging support, and offers various authentication protocols. It uses a 400 MHz PowerPC chip from Freescale as its main brain and has 512 MB of main memory and 640 MB of flash memory, and it has under 2 microseconds of latency running at 10 GE speeds. The base ProCurve 6120XG costs $11,500.

Not everyone needs 10 GE for their blade servers or has the budget for it even if they want it, which is why HP is also putting out a home-grown Gigabit Ethernet switch, called the ProCurve 6120G/XG. This switch has sixteen Gigabit Ethernet downlinks, four copper GE uplinks, three 10 GE uplinks, and a single 10 GE cross-connect. This switch is aimed at data centers in transition, who don't want to pay a premium for 10 GE mezzanine cards on the servers or the premium that 10 GE has per port switch but who nonetheless may be using 10 GE switches on their network backbones. This switch is based on the same Freescale processor, which runs HP's ProCurve ONE network operating system. Beyond that, the similarities fade. The ProCurve 6120G/XG costs $5,500.

HP is also launching a baby version of the ProCurve 8212zl modular core switch, called the 8206zl. This new switch has six network module slots and supports up to 144 Gigabit or 23 10 GE ports. The 8212zl modular switch has twice this capacity. These switches use Freescale PowerPC chips to run ProCurve ONE, and they have 200 MHz ARM9 processors on the network modules to do their local processing. The ProCurve 8206zl is rated at 240.2 million packets per second in throughput, with latency of under 2.1 microseconds on 10 GE links and under 3.7 microseconds on Gigabit Ethernet links (using 64 byte packets). The 8212zl doubles these up. The ProCurve 8206zl costs $12,599 in a base configuration.

In a related announcement, HP has goosed the Power over Ethernet (PoE) capabilities in its ProCurve 5400 series of switches, which allows close to twice as much electrical power to be pumped down an Ethernet cable (15.5 watts) to power devices such as VoIP phones. On the 20-port version of the ProCurve, up to 13 of the ports can be used concurrently with this higher PoE+ power draw.

HP also says that the VirtualConnect 20-port Fibre Channel module for the BladeSystem machines now supports 8 Gb/sec FC links, double the speed of the prior module. This peppier FC module costs $9,499. HP also sells a VirtualConnect Flex-10 10 GE switch and a plain old VirtualConnect 10 GE switch for the blade boxes. These VirtualConnect switches virtualize I/O as well as providing switching. The new ProCurves just do networking and don't mess with I/O. ®

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