At VMworld, Don't Neglect Your Network

Arthur Cole

VMworld will no doubt be filled with technologies that promise to do more with virtual environments. The fact is, though, that any environment, virtual or otherwise, isn't worth a hill of beans if it can't communicate effectively with the world around it.

That's why it probably makes sense to take a look at your network infrastructure before you start loading up on all the latest virtual goodies. And the only way to ensure that your networking can keep up with you virtual systems is to give it a good dose of virtualization itself.

That's how many of the networking firms are overcoming the bottlenecks that occur when too many virtual machines start vying for too few physical network connections. Mellanox, for one, is on to the next generation of its ConnectX platform, the ConnectX-2 (natch), which promises to not only improve virtual connectivity but consolidate storage networking resources by virtue of its support for 40 Gbps InfiniBand and Fibre Channel over InfiniBand as well as 10 GbE and FCoE.

However, a key component in the system, according to Gilad Shainer, director of technical marketing at Mellanox, is its ability to offload many of the network responsibilities from the resident hypervisor, freeing up server resources for even greater consolidation.

"We enable virtual machines to access the network directly, rather than go through the hypervisor," he said. "Once you do that, you move from the 60-to-70 percent efficiency you get with virtualization to 80-or-90 percent efficiency. We also support the PCIe SR-IOV framework that lets network devices have more virtual functions, so we can support large amounts of virtual NICs emulating either Ethernet, InfiniBand or Fibre Channel."

Increasing VMs while decreasing network hardware is the name of the game in networking circles these days. Start-up VirtenSys is hoping to make a name for itself doing just that with the VIO 4000 series switch. The system's claim to fame is that it allows you to consolidate Ethernet, FCoE and Fibre Channel, as well as SAS and SATA networks, without hardware changes to your server, network or I/O infrastructure. The switch supports NICs from Intel and Neterion, as well as QLogic Fibre CHannel HBAs and LSI's SAS/SATA MegaRAID controller.

And speaking of Neterion, that company is coming into VMworld with newfound certification for its X3100 Series 10 GbE adapter for the ESX 3.5 platform. The designation makes it easier to integrate the X3100 into mission-critical ESX environments, meaning its hardware-based I/O Quality of Service (IOQoS) technology should have no troubling in maintaining bandwidth for top-tier applications. No word on how close the company is to getting certified for either ESX 4.0 or the new vSphere 4.0 platforms.

Things are also happening on the chip level, where companies like Solarflare are combining network optimization technology and clustering capabilities within VMware environments. The company is highlighting a new Solarstorm 10 GbE controller family featuring an integrated 10GBASE-T LAN-on-motherboard chip, as well as a new vNIC architecture that offers flexible mapping and traffic management to improve the flow of data to and from individual guest OS's.

As we delve further and further into virtual and even cloud environments, it becomes evident that the old view of the data center as a collection of discrete systems no longer cuts it. These days, the data center is an organic creature, where changes in one area can greatly affect the performance of another.

Virtualization is a worthy goal, but without upgrades to the underlying infrastructure, your benefits will be limited.

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