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Xsigo rejiggers virtual I/O director for Ethernet

Adapter cards given the boot, too

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Xsigo Systems, one of the pioneers of virtual I/O for server networks and their links to storage, is beside itself with excitement at the VMworld virtualization and cloud extravaganza in San Francisco now that it has finally brought a product to market that is designed for enthusiastic uptake by IT shops that like their Ethernet and don't want to buy special adapter cards from anyone to virtualize their I/O.

Xsigo came out of stealth mode three years ago at VMware's VMworld event, showing off an in-band storage and network virtualization appliance based on an InfiniBand backbone and a proprietary card that plugs into each server.

The original Xsigo VP780 I/O Director completely virtualized the links between servers, outside networks, and storage, and it had the benefit of working with any standard rack, blade, or tower server that has a PCI-slot for an adapter card. The company replaced multiple Ethernet and Fibre Channel links between the server and the outside world with a single, full-duplex 20Gb/sec link that piped back to the I/O director and offered up to 64 virtual NICs and HBAs per physical server — this could be a rack or blade server, Xsigo didn't care.

By contrast, the initial virtual I/O offerings from HP and IBM — VirtualConnect and Open Fabric Manager, respectively — were only available for those companies' blade servers.

HP and IBM have partnered to flesh out their offerings to include top-of-rack 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches with support for Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) protocols. Cisco Systems, a newbie in the server racket, put virtualized I/O at the very center of its "California" Unified Computing System blade and rack servers. But in reality, for the best I/O virtualization from HP, IBM, or Cisco, you need to have blade servers. Dell doesn't really do much engineering — excepting in its Data Center Solutions unit and in the storage companies it buys from time to time — and has been happy to partner with Xsigo to have a virtual I/O offering.

Dell might wish after Tuesday that it had bought Xsigo already and not wasted its time on disk-array maker 3PAR because the new VP780 and VP560 Ethernet-based I/O directors will plug into any server that has a native Gigabit Ethernet or 10 Gigabit Ethernet port — no extra card required — and will virtualize all of the I/O within the server inside the Ethernet switch at the center of the director. That mean there's no requirement for InfiniBand, its cabling, or a host adapter card in each virtualized server. Whatever Ethernet you already have wired onto the motherboard will get you started, and if you want to add a 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapter for more oomph, you can do that, too.

"We now have the capability of virtualizing the I/O for any server on Earth," says Jon Toor, vice president of marketing at Xsigo.

Toor says that the I/O Director VP780 was designed to be fabric-agnostic from the beginning. Given the fact that Ethernet did not yet support the lossless FCoE protocol required for virtualizing storage links and InfiniBand had a significant bandwidth and low latency advantage over Ethernet, Xsigo naturally started off with an InfiniBand-based product.

The VP780 I/O Director has 1.5Tb/sec of aggregate bandwidth and is plenty fast enough to support whatever Ethernet or InfiniBand you throw at it. The 4U unit has 24 ports hooking back into the servers and up to 15 I/O modules for linking out to networks and storage. Each module has four Gigabit Ethernet, one 10 Gigabit Ethernet, two 4Gb Fibre Channel ports, and an SSL encryption offload module. The Ethernet modules can support iSCSI disk arrays and the Fibre Channel links go out to SANs. The VP780 can link to an expansion switch that allows it to be hooked up to hundreds of servers.

Xsigo Systems VP780 and VP560 I/O Directors

The original VP780 (left) and VP560 (right) I/O Directors using InfiniBand.

In May this year, Xsigo put out a scaled-down version of its I/O Director, the VP560, which had the same 24 ports back to the servers, but only had four I/O modules in a 2U chassis.

With the InfiniBand backbone, the VP780 I/O Director costs $30,000 in a base configuration, compared to $20,000 for the base VP560.

Xsigo has been mum about when it might move up to 40Gb/sec InfiniBand, and now we know why: the company has instead been worrying about moving to 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

Starting in September, Xsigo will begin shipments of the VP780 Ethernet and VP560 Ethernet I/O Directors, which have the same basic guts as the InfiniBand versions with two major changes. One is obviously a switch from InfiniBand to Ethernet for the switching protocol, and the other is the elimination of the host bus adapter card to link the server to the I/O Director. The Ethernet versions of the I/O Directors have the same 1.5Tb/sec of bandwidth and are really designed for 10 Gigabit Ethernet links, but will work with Gigabit Ethernet if you want to start there with your existing iron.

The VP780 Ethernet I/O Director supports 32 10 Gigabit Ethernet links out to the servers, and comes in the same 4U chassis with 15 I/O modules and an aggregate of 150 uplink ports to the outside world. It costs $45,000, which is a slight premium compared to the VP780 InfiniBand product. When you do the math, the InfiniBand product works out to $1,250 per server attached to the I/O Director, while Ethernet version works out to $1,406 per server.

The VP560 Ethernet I/O Director has the same 32 10 Gigabit Ethernet links to the servers, but only four I/O modules; it costs $35,000, or $1,093 per server attached to it. With all of the server expansion chassis attached to the bigger I/O director, the Xsigo setup can deliver a virtual link to storage and networks for under $500 per server.

Xsigo Systems VP560 Ethernet I/O Director

The business end of the new VP560 Ethernet I/O Director.

The big savings with the new Ethernet-based I/O Directors from Xsigo, says Toor, is the fact that server buyers will not need to buy a converged network adapter for their servers. Depending on make or model, these adapters can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $2,800 per server. Toor says that rather than put all of the brains for managing the virtual links in the card, Xsigo has done an anti-Cisco and pulled it back into the switch. The upshot is that the Xsigo approach will save IT shops money and allow them to virtualize the I/O for legacy as well as new servers in their data centers.

Toor says that the Ethernet-based I/O directors will appeal to three different groups of IT shops. The first are shops that want to virtualize I/O, but they can't make the case for bringing InfiniBand into the data centers. Many companies have standardized on Ethernet, and that is that, even if the use of InfiniBand is completely masked as is the case with the original VP780 and VP560 appliances. Another group of companies have legacy servers running production applications, and they cannot take these machines offline to install a special adapter card and rewire their networks. They just want to plug the Ethernet wire into a new box, load a driver, and reboot the server.

Xsigo has a fairly small customer base, with just over 100 customers, but now has CRM giant Salesforce.com and eBay's StubHub event-ticket reseller as marquee customers. The company added 38 customers last year, and is accelerating its sales push. With an installed base of over 30 million x64 servers sitting out there in the world, and maybe 10 million new ones going in this year, Xsigo has a much wider addressable market with its Ethernet products.

Maybe Dell — or IBM, or HP, or Hitachi, or Fujitsu, or Oracle — will figure this out and snap the company up like a trout on a June bug. You can bet that Kleiner Perkins, Khosla Ventures, North Bridge Venture Partners, and Greylock Partners, who have all kicked in an undisclosed amount of venture capital in several rounds, are betting someone wants to finally pay a heavy premium for Xsigo. Whoever between HP and Dell loses the 3PAR bidding war is a good guess for who will make a run at Xsigo, but you can't count out Larry Ellison and his newfound appetite for hardware, either. ®

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