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Another approach to I/O virtualization is to use an existing network interconnect technology such as InfiniBand or 40 Gb Ethernet as the transport for virtualizing I/O adapters. Two companies are building products to handle IOV in this fashion:

Mellanox Technologies Ltd., well-known for its InfiniBand products, provides its I/O consolidation solutions using either InfiniBand or 10 Gb Ethernet (10 GbE) as the transport for performing IOV. They're also building 40 Gb Ethernet adapters that are compliant with SR-IOV.

Xsigo Systems Inc. uses InfiniBand HCAs that connect to its I/O Director that provides the infrastructure for IOV-capable adapters. One reason for using InfiniBand is its high speed and very low latency. Inside the I/O Director are the same PCI Express network and storage adapters that would otherwise be installed in each host server. Xsigo's I/O Director has been available for approximately two years, and the company has established partnerships with a number of storage vendors, including Dell Inc. and EMC Corp.

Many network and storage adapter vendors are working on full support for I/O virtualization, especially for compliance with the SR-IOV and/or MR-IOV specifications. The vendor roster includes Emulex Corp., Intel Corp., LSI, Neterion Inc., QLogic Corp. and others. The big server vendors, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. and IBM Corp., are beginning to demonstrate solutions that support I/O virtualization, either

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in their rack servers or blade servers, or both. Cisco Systems Inc. has also joined the movement with its Cisco UCS M81KR Virtual Interface Card. The big processor vendors, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc. and Intel, include virtualization technologies that help enable some of these IOV functions.

How and when to implement I/O virtualization

Implementation of I/O virtualization technologies will most likely be a slow, deliberate process. That's because the work to make all the adapters function in this manner isn't complete yet, and because the top-of-rack IOV units are still in their early stages. For I/O virtualization to work properly, development work needs to be completed on the adapter hardware and firmware, drivers, operating systems and hypervisors. Several vendors will be announcing support for various forms of IOV in 2010, and it's anticipated that IOV will emerge as one of the top new technologies for the year. However, expect I/O virtualization to take a few years to become commonplace.

Look for 10 Gb Ethernet adapters to be the first to fully support IOV. Demonstrations of IOV-capable 10 GbE adapters were shown publicly in 2009 at a number of trade shows. After the Ethernet adapters, you can expect to see storage adapters such as Fibre Channel HBAs, FCoE CNAs and SAS/SATA non-RAID adapters to support I/O virtualization. The last category of storage adapters that will likely fully support IOV are the RAID controllers, due to the complexity of sharing RAID functions across servers. Separately, some graphics coprocessor adapters will support IOV, with some products possibly available in 2010.

This was first published in February 2010

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