Network Convergence: The Next Step Toward the Cloud

Arthur Cole

Virtualization is supposed to provide the underlying structure for cloud computing, but the where's and how's of going virtual are only the first steps in building a 21st Century enterprise.

I've blogged recently about virtualization's impact on the storage farm, but that still does not give us the entire equation. In order to gain the true benefit of server virtualization, a lot more attention will have to be paid to your networking infrastructure. After all, what good is an army of virtual machines and unlimited cloud resources if you can't get your data to the users who need it?

That's why it looks like 2010 is shaping up to be the year of converged networking. Now that end-point systems are seeing such dramatic improvements in performance, the linkage that holds it all together needs a significant boost as well. And the only real way to do that without further complicating an already messy (for most of you) network infrastructure is to bring it all together under a single fabric.

Egenera CEO Pete Manca describes network convergence as the "other half" of virtualization in that it provides the kind of flexibility needed to truly leverage the dynamic capabilities that virtual environments provide. In fact, the early adopters here will likely be the Infrastructure-as-a-Service market, consisting of hosting services, cloud providers and those deploying internal clouds, as none of those offerings really have much chance of improving on current infrastructure without a more efficient network.

That's part of the reason network convergence is showing up more and more on CIO priority lists for the coming year. Voltaire surveyed more than 120 members of the Global CIO and Executive IT Group at the recent MIT Sloan CIO Symposium and found that improved bandwidth, lower latency and increased scalability are top concerns for the immediate future. Nearly all respondents were looking at either Ethernet-only or some combination of Ethernet/InfiniBand for their converged fabrics.

The race for top bandwidth is already on among providers of converged network adapters (CNAs), since they are the central components of the unified fabrics due to their ability to unite storage and data traffic and remove much of the networking hardware that makes current layouts both complicated and expensive to maintain. Emulex was quick to announce recent benchmark results from IT Brand Pulse that showed its OneConnect CNA approaching 1 million IOPS over a single port. The company attributes that throughput to its use of full hardware support for TCP/IP, iSCSI and FCoE offload.

Higher bandwidth is certainly desirable, but converged networking will also require a higher degree of traffic management, according to Fulcrum Microsystems' Zhi-Hern Loh, writing at EDN. Techniques like congestion notification (CN) help to alert network components if there is a tie-up at a particular network point, which can then compensate through a variety of flow-control mechanisms. The IEEE is currently looking at standardizing CN techniques and is looking at several proposals from Cisco and others.

Since networking represents one of the three pillars of enterprise infrastructure (the other two being servers and storage), it's only natural that it should progress at an equal pace toward the dynamic architectures that are possible in the cloud. Even the most advanced virtual environments will rely on physical components to get the job done, but all those components will need to be able to handle each other's output to make an effective foundation for the cloud.

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