A Little Networking Among Friends

Arthur Cole

IBM is on a tear this week, furthering its strategy of incorporating third-party technology, particularly networking gear, into its data platforms in the hopes that variety will provide a leg up as enterprises lay out their long-term cloud computing plans.

While chief rival HP has reached out to the smaller networking firms as well, most of its cards are with the ProCurve networking platform, and even then there's a question as to how much stock the company puts in the cloud.

IBM, on the other hand, has made no secret that it hopes to foster solutions that stretch across physical, virtual and cloud architectures, even though it lacks the in-house networking platform to bring it all together. To that end, the company is turning to the likes of Voltaire, QLogic and others to provide the tendrils linking its various Power and System platforms, allowing them to act as resource pools rather than discrete pieces of hardware.

From Voltaire, the company is bringing in the Vantage 8500 10 GbE switch for the System Cluster 1350 portfolio, which includes the System x Bladecenter and iDataPlex servers. The Vantage brings both low-power and low-latency to the platform, and can scale out the cluster to several thousand machines with as few as a dozen switches or so. For HPC outfits, IBM already offers Voltaire's 20 and 40 Gbps InfiniBand switches for the 1350 line, which can now be configured under the Grid Director 4700 switch that can scale up to 648 ports with the company's HyperScale fabric board.

That the stakes are high in the networking realm these days is evidenced by IBM's willingness to chip away at its long-running partnership with Emulex to take on a new alignment with QLogic for Fibre Channel over Ethernet capabilities. QLogic's 8100 Series converged network adapter (CNA) will be integrated into the Power Systems server line by virtue of its power envelope and connectivity capabilities. It also helps that the 8100 is a single-chip solution that provides an FCoE offload engine, leaving the server with more resources to process application data.

IBM's third-party strategy may provide for more flexibility when it comes to designing network architectures, but it is not without its disadvantages. For one thing, there is the chance that your partner's strategic interests may not jibe with yours for very long. That's what is happening with Cisco Systems, which still counts itself as a solid IBM partner even though it offers a server platform of its own now. Cisco has Ethernet switches too, but apparently not the kind that IBM wants for the Cluster 1350.

In any event, the focus in the data center has clearly shifted from deploying the most powerful boxes to deploying the most scalable network to allow commodity boxes to work in tandem. As a vendor, not having that capability in-house may allow you to put more options on the table, but it leaves ultimate control of this key component of the new enterprise infrastructures in the hands of others.

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