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Networking technology key to data center efficiency

Networking technology key to data center efficiency

By  Linda Tucci, Executive Editor

04 Sep 2008 | SearchCIO.com

Show them the money?

Voltaire Ltd., a maker of server and storage switching equipment for data centers, has come up with a proposition to nudge CIOs into allocating budget dollars to make their data centers more power efficient and environmentally friendly. The Herzliya, Israel-based company announced yesterday that it is making a "50-50-300 Pledge": IT execs who deploy a Voltaire unified fabric based on InfiniBand technology can save 50% on power/cooling used for server interconnections, plus 50% on hardware allocation and usage while serving up a 300% increase in application performance. To help IT executives justify the investment in unified fabric, the company has developed the "Efficiency Calculator" to estimate cost savings.

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Patrick Guay, vice president of global sales for the company's U.S.-based subsidiary, said the pitch stemmed from a survey of CIOs and IT executives at the 2008 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium in Cambridge, Mass., in May, which featured a session on the greening of the data center.

The survey found that while nearly 90% of those polled believed that having an energy-efficient data center will become a mission-critical issue in 2008 for their companies, 76% said they do not have a committed budget for greening initiatives.

More telling for a vendor like Voltaire or its competitor, Cisco Systems Inc., for that matter, was the general ignorance of the IT executives surveyed on the impact that the network infrastructure can have on energy costs.

"Close to 80% of those surveyed said they did not have an opinion as to which of the prevalent networking technologies are the most efficient," Guay said. The finding was consistent with the emphasis at the MIT symposium's session on the data center.

"There was a lot of talk about what people are doing from a storage and server standpoint on green IT, but the whole concept of looking at the infrastructure, the network itself, seemed to be overlooked a little bit," Guay said.

Today, servers typically have multiple connections into the networking infrastructure. Consolidating them to a single wire reduces the amount of power that the servers draw.

"More importantly, we eliminate the need for a large percentage of the networking switching infrastructure because you don't need as many of the parts as you would prior to consolidating," Guay said. In addition, the InfiniBand technology requires about a tenth of the power on a per-port basis that technology such as 10 Gbit Ethernet would require, he said.

The Infiniband technology the Voltaire products are based on is capable of unifying storage and server traffic at 20 Gbits per second, which is twice as fast as the Ethernet standard on the market today, he said, and "we do it lower latencies than what the Ethernet does."

So why wouldn't everyone use an InfiniBand architecture, let alone be grossly unaware of it?

"To a large extent, it's been a fact of not needing to. The bottlenecks that occur between the server and the network, up until this point, have been pretty easy to solve. It's just a matter of adding another interface network card and adding another network port," Guay said.

Technologies such as server virtualization and storage virtualization, as well as the increased capability of the servers themselves, are changing the equation, he said, creating more bottlenecks. "Now people are saying we can't just keep adding interface cards to these servers because it consumes a lot of power. And people are beginning to ask if there is a different way to look at this."

Parallel networks

Analyst Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president with the enterprise research group at Boston-based Yankee Group Research Inc., agreed the use of unified fabric is "in its infancy," in part because of the newness of the data center Ethernet for storage and other new network technologies, as well as investment in traditional connections.

At the root of the problem with data centers is the multiplicity of connection technologies. High-capacity servers clustered together connect over the InfiniBand technology. Storage connectivity is typically done over Fibre Channel, and network connectivity over Ethernet.

"What's happened in today's modern data center, is that while everyone talks about convergence of voice and video, we've not converted anything in our data center and continued to go parallel networks -- one for storage, one for networking and in a lot of cases one for blade server racks, which would be done over InfiniBand -- all interconnected through the servers," Kerravala said. "It's not a very elegant story. The concept of unified fabric is to take all of these different networks and converge them together and have them over one pipe."

The shift to server and storage virtualization is indeed the driver for unified fabric, Kerravala said. As more companies use virtualization, interconnecting servers, storage and applications, the need for a single protocol -- a unified fabric -- becomes paramount. It doesn't really work if you've got to build your storage pool on one protocol, your server on another protocol and your network protocol on another one.

"You've still got to interconnect somehow. So if it is all on one common network, you make distribution of these services much easier," Kerravala said.

But for the reasons he cited, the adoption curve could be a long one.

"The analogy I always use for the grand vision of how this all might work is Star Trek," Kerravala said. "So Mr. Scott -- whenever the Enterprise was running out of power on forward shield, he could divert power from life support.

"So instead of it being life support and forward shield, think of it as billing systems and Web servers. Instead of having to go down to the data center and re-provision all the servers in the enterprise, from a centralized management console, he could then be able to take whatever process or storage he needed from one system and move it to another in real time. That is how a virtualized data center should work."

The analogy I always use for the grand vision of how this all might work is Star Trek.
Zeus Kerravala
senior vice president, enterprise research groupYankee Group Research Inc.
A report issued last month by Gartner Inc. states that more than 70% of Global 1,000 enterprises will face power shortages in their data centers unless they look at re-architecting their data centers.

"More than 70% of Global 1,000 enterprises will face significant data center problems during the next four years, requiring substantial capital costs to build new facilities or refurbish existing ones," said Rakesh Kumar, research vice president at Gartner Research. "Our research has shown that the immediate green IT issues in data centers are around power, cooling and floor space problems. We believe, therefore, that user spending should focus on these areas."

In addition, Gartner recommended that during the next two years, "users should select core IT hardware, including servers, storage and networking equipment based on their energy characteristics, as well as on traditional IT metrics like price/performance."

Other findings from the Voltaire survey include: 43% of respondents will implement a green data center in the next two years; 52% of those surveyed said reducing power and cooling costs was the most important benefit gained by going green in the data center, followed by 37% who singled out helping the environment. Among the 57% who said "going green" gives their companies a competitive advantage, 72% said it was because the more cost-effective infrastructure will free up money to invest in new technologies.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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