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Hot Spots: Tap virtual servers, storage for all they're worth

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There are solutions that address these problems, but the extent to which they solve them varies. Let's take a look at some of the technologies looking to resolve these problems.

Automated patch panels. This option offers the ability to wire all connections into a single patch panel, which can then handle all reconfigurations. This solution has been available for many years and is very popular in lab configurations. (However, it doesn't address the need to see virtual machines.) For those environments with constantly changing physical environments, this would be very useful. Key suppliers in this market include Apcon and OnPath Technologies (formerly IntelliPath).

N_Port ID Virtualization (NPIV). NPIV recognizes multiple IDs from one physical HBA, essentially creating logical HBA ports. This technology was specifically designed to recognize virtual machines on a physical server. Many refer to it as virtual HBAs. The technology is focused mainly on FC, so while it doesn't reduce the number of cables, it does provide additional intelligence in virtualized servers and reduces some security and management burdens. Key suppliers of this technology are Emulex and QLogic.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE). Here's another technology looking to solve the I/O problem. Based on developing enhancements to existing Ethernet protocols like priority flow control, lossless

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Ethernet, congestion management and priority grouping, FCoE will reduce connectivity requirements. It does this by using a single converged network adapter to handle both IP and FC traffic through a single physical interface. It will support 10Gb throughput and current FC management solutions. This technology is still emerging and products (demonstrated at trade shows) aren't expected to be widely available until late 2008 or early 2009. There's a great deal of support for this technology from many of the industry's leading providers like Brocade, Cisco, Emulex, Network Appliance, Nuova and QLogic.

InfiniBand. This option provides high throughput and is currently available. Companies are taking advantage of this technology to enable I/O virtualization; essentially, a single card can have multiple virtual NICs or virtual HBAs. This type of solution eliminates the need for multiple cables, NICs and HBAs, and provides sufficient bandwidth to eliminate any I/O bottlenecks. One company pioneering virtual I/O with InfiniBand is Xsigo Systems. The company has solutions available today, and has also built an open solution that will enable it to convert to FCoE when it's available.

Implementing technology for the sake of technology doesn't make sense. Deploying new technology because it saves you time and money, and delivers higher levels of service, is worth investigating. The benefits of virtual I/O include:

  1. Monetary savings. Virtual I/O infrastructures require fewer interface cards and cables. Only a single card and cable (two of each for high availability) are required for each physical server installation. Operational costs are reduced due to a single interface requiring only one team to install it; purchasing, inventory and so on are also simplified.


  2. Time savings. Virtualizing the I/O path enables change to occur in almost real-time, as it creates an abstract layer for network and storage resources. It also accelerates the time to deploy new services on physical infrastructures, as there are fewer server connections.


  3. Higher levels of service. Regardless of the technology implemented to virtualize the I/O path, service levels can be improved dramatically. At the very least, leveraging an HBA with NPIV provides greater clarity in virtual server environments. Leveraging InfiniBand or FCoE technology not only provides that visibility, but has the additional benefit of greater throughput. This will become critical as more virtual machines and corresponding applications are placed on physical servers.
This environment should also facilitate the centralized control of I/O resources and improve responses to application migration/failovers, new deployments and DR situations. The ability to identify each virtual machine can establish QoS for the I/O path, as well as enhance security options. As virtualization technology becomes more widely used, it will continue to highlight deficiencies in other areas of the data center. In this case, the spotlight is now on the I/O path's role as a potential bottleneck.

Virtualizing the I/O path may be the best way to accommodate the dynamic nature of these environments. There's a variety of technologies available--with more on the horizon--that address some or all of the issues created by server virtualization. The first step is to become familiar with the various techniques and to decide what makes the most sense for you today and in the future.

This was first published in March 2008

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