Networking for Converged Infrastructure

Converged infrastructure (CI) sounds like a data center manager’s dream. Rather than provisioning, configuring and integrating individual components into a working environment, CI allows you to simply plug boxes into one another Lego®-style. At least, that’s the dream.

In practice, however, it isn’t quite that simple, at least not in the initial deployment phase. Aside from the plethora of vendor solutions out there – IBM has one, HP has one, even Facebook has one – there are design considerations within each platform that can have serious repercussions regarding price and performance down the road.

A key issue is networking, which confounding both buyers and vendors. The main question is, do you want to employ more traditional, albeit highly streamlined, rack-based networking infrastructure, or should you go with an all-software approach?

EMC converged infrastructure drives a wedge between VMware and Cisco

This issue is already tearing at the seams of the leading CI partnership: the VCE project, led by EMC, VMware and Cisco. The VCE platform is built around the jointly developed Vblockmodule, but in a blow to VMware,the default networking component will be Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure and the Nexus 9000 switch rather than the NSX platform that VMware acquired from Nicira in late 2012. Users will still be able to run NSX on the VCE platform, but they’ll need to go through the VMware Cooperative Support Agreement to get it.

Meanwhile, EMC, the majority owner of VMware, is attempting to smooth things over with both VMware and Cisco by cutting separate deals in support of their respective networking solutions. VMware will benefit from Project Mystic, aimed at developing an EMC-branded CI solution that will make extensive use of VMware cloud and virtualization software, which presumably includes the NSX and/or VXLAN platforms. Although details are sketchy, the idea is to layer the system on top of commodity hardware, with final integration responsibilities falling to the distribution channel. Also unclear is how this new platform will affect VMware relations with other CI partners like Nutanix and Simplivity.

Converged infrastructure and the channel

At the same time, EMC and Cisco have entered into a new channel program to provide rebates and other incentives for key elements of the VCE platform, like the VPSEX reference architecture. The Cloud Infrastructure Solutions Accelerator program is widely seen as an attempt to quell growing unrest among distributors and other channel partners, who fear that a widening rift between key partners in the Vblock platform will hurt sales. The program also includes guidance on how to custom-design CI platforms using various combos of EMC, VCE and Cisco technologies.

Without doubt, the VCE consortium and its channel partners are starting to feel the pressure as interest in converged infrastructure heats up. A top competitor is likely to be HP, which recently came out with a new Virtual Connect FlexFabric module that can transform BladeSystem architectures into converged platforms. The device provides up to 40G core network support and can be controlled by the company’s OneView CI management stack. As an aside, HP announced that the Virtual Connect platform recently surpassed 10 million port shipments, eliminating an estimated 60,000 km of data center cabling.

Regardless of whether the enterprise adopts an all-software or an integrated hardware/software approach to CI networking, the ultimate goal of building modular infrastructure around a software defined network architecture remains the same. The difference is whether the SDN component will ride on commodity hardware, or whether there will be added value in built-in hardware dependency.

Both sides of the debate say theirs is the superior solution. Enterprise executives will surely want to delve into this issue fairly quickly if data center hardware convergence is on the agenda.

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