Special Coverage Series

Network Computing

Special Coverage Series

Commentary

Howard Marks
Howard Marks Network Computing Blogger

Dell VRTX Rethinks Blade Servers

Dell's VRTX converged infrastructure uses PCIe switch slots instead of a conventional blade chassis with mezzanine cards to give customers more flexibility and choice.

The big announcement in the otherwise content-free opening keynote for Dell's Enterprise Forum is VRTX (pronounced vertex). VRTX is clever, blade-based converged system for remote, branch and small offices.

At first glance, VRTX is simply a four-blade chassis with quieter fans, so you can put it in the office instead of the data center. In reality there's more revolutionary technology in this box.

More Insights

Webcasts

More >>

White Papers

More >>

Reports

More >>

My problem with blade servers has always been the proprietary mezzanine cards the blades use. If you buy your blade system from Cisco, IBM, HP, Dell or even Supermicro, you've limited your I/O options to the small number of mezzanine cards your blade vendor either resells or endorses.

For instance, if you have Cisco UCS blades and want to add a Virident SSD because you love its FlashMAX Connect software, you're out of luck because Cisco only endorses Fusion-io flash cards.

VRTX breaks that mold. Rather than giving each blade one or two mezzanine card slots, the mezzanine cards on the VRTX blades connect to a pair of PCIe switch chips on the chassis motherboard.

Those PCIe switches are, in turn, connected to eight bog standard PCIe slots in the chassis: three full-height and five half-height and a shared PERC SAS/SATA RAID controller. That's all in a slightly oversize tower or with the optional rackmount form factor in a 5U package. The VRTX uses same M620 blades in Dell's data center blade chassis.

Each blade also has four 1-Gbps Ethernet LOM (LAN on motherboard) ports that can be connected to a switch in the back of the cabinet. Those who just have to use switches from their favorite networking vendor (cough, Cisco, cough) can put a pass-through module in the chassis instead of the switch-though that will only pass two of the three Ethernet ports from each blade.

Dell VRTX Diagram
Power Edge VRTX Diagram (Summary)
Source: BladesMadeSimple.com

Each of the eight PCIe slots can be assigned to any of the server blades, though the blade does have to be power cycled to recognize that it now has an extra PCIe slot. At launch, Dell only supports a limited set of PCIe cards--predominantly 1-Gbps and 10-Gbps Ethernet, plus a SAS HBA and AMD FirePro W7000 graphics cards. However, I expect Dell to add support for more cards based on customer demand.

And the truth is, other than storage HBAs, no one checks to see if a card is blessed by their vendor before plugging it in. Thus, I'm excited about the ability to use a wider variety of PCIe cards. That will not only let me use the PCIe SSD and network cards I like, rather than the ones Dell has packaged as mezzanine cards, but since the PCIe cards are exposed to the back of the chassis I can use arbitrary cards with unique connectors. For instance, I could use a four-port video card for digital signage or an Infiniband card.

Then there's the storage story. There are 25 2.5-inch or 12 3.5-inch SAS/SATA drive bays connected through a SAS extender to the shared PERC RAID controller on the chassis motherboard. The RAID controller is seen by all the blades in the chassis, and it can assign logical drives from the common RAID pool to the individual blades in the chassis. This makes for a robust storage back end.

More details about VRTX, and more photos, are available at Kevin Houston's blog.

Several bloggers were talking about VRTX at the show. While most of the discussion was around how a VRTX would, all by itself, make a perfect home lab, we did start to speculate about what the follow-on product should look like.

I for one would love to see a bigger, data center-oriented version. An eight- to 16-slot chassis with 10-Gbps LOM plus the kind of PCIe slot switching that's in VRTX would be a step up from the more conventional blade chassis with mezzanine cards.

I had a brief discussion with the Dell folks about how cool it would be if they went the next step and made the PCIe switching dynamic, like NextIO or Virtensys, and let multiple blades access an SR-IOV card in a shared PCIe slot, allocating the SR-IOV resources such as virtual NICs across multiple blades.

What features would you like to see in subsequent versions? And has Dell caught your interest with VRTX?



Related Reading



Network Computing encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Network Computing moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing/SPAM. Network Computing further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

 
Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | Please read our commenting policy.
 

Editor's Choice

Research: 2014 State of Server Technology

Research: 2014 State of Server Technology

Buying power and influence are rapidly shifting to service providers. Where does that leave enterprise IT? Not at the cutting edge, thatís for sure: Only 19% are increasing both the number and capability of servers, budgets are level or down for 60% and just 12% are using new micro technology.
Get full survey results now! »

Vendor Turf Wars

Vendor Turf Wars

The enterprise tech market used to be an orderly place, where vendors had clearly defined markets. No more. Driven both by increasing complexity and Wall Street demands for growth, big vendors are duking it out for primacy -- and refusing to work together for IT's benefit. Must we now pick a side, or is neutrality an option?
Get the Digital Issue »

WEBCAST: Software Defined Networking (SDN) First Steps

WEBCAST: Software Defined Networking (SDN) First Steps


Software defined networking encompasses several emerging technologies that bring programmable interfaces to data center networks and promise to make networks more observable and automated, as well as better suited to the specific needs of large virtualized data centers. Attend this webcast to learn the overall concept of SDN and its benefits, describe the different conceptual approaches to SDN, and examine the various technologies, both proprietary and open source, that are emerging.
Register Today »

Related Content

From Our Sponsor

How Data Center Infrastructure Management Software Improves Planning and Cuts Operational Cost

How Data Center Infrastructure Management Software Improves Planning and Cuts Operational Cost

Business executives are challenging their IT staffs to convert data centers from cost centers into producers of business value. Data centers can make a significant impact to the bottom line by enabling the business to respond more quickly to market demands. This paper demonstrates, through a series of examples, how data center infrastructure management software tools can simplify operational processes, cut costs, and speed up information delivery.

Impact of Hot and Cold Aisle Containment on Data Center Temperature and Efficiency

Impact of Hot and Cold Aisle Containment on Data Center Temperature and Efficiency

Both hot-air and cold-air containment can improve the predictability and efficiency of traditional data center cooling systems. While both approaches minimize the mixing of hot and cold air, there are practical differences in implementation and operation that have significant consequences on work environment conditions, PUE, and economizer mode hours. The choice of hot-aisle containment over cold-aisle containment can save 43% in annual cooling system energy cost, corresponding to a 15% reduction in annualized PUE. This paper examines both methodologies and highlights the reasons why hot-aisle containment emerges as the preferred best practice for new data centers.

Monitoring Physical Threats in the Data Center

Monitoring Physical Threats in the Data Center

Traditional methodologies for monitoring the data center environment are no longer sufficient. With technologies such as blade servers driving up cooling demands and regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley driving up data security requirements, the physical environment in the data center must be watched more closely. While well understood protocols exist for monitoring physical devices such as UPS systems, computer room air conditioners, and fire suppression systems, there is a class of distributed monitoring points that is often ignored. This paper describes this class of threats, suggests approaches to deploying monitoring devices, and provides best practices in leveraging the collected data to reduce downtime.

Cooling Strategies for Ultra-High Density Racks and Blade Servers

Cooling Strategies for Ultra-High Density Racks and Blade Servers

Rack power of 10 kW per rack or more can result from the deployment of high density information technology equipment such as blade servers. This creates difficult cooling challenges in a data center environment where the industry average rack power consumption is under 2 kW. Five strategies for deploying ultra-high power racks are described, covering practical solutions for both new and existing data centers.

Power and Cooling Capacity Management for Data Centers

Power and Cooling Capacity Management for Data Centers

High density IT equipment stresses the power density capability of modern data centers. Installation and unmanaged proliferation of this equipment can lead to unexpected problems with power and cooling infrastructure including overheating, overloads, and loss of redundancy. The ability to measure and predict power and cooling capability at the rack enclosure level is required to ensure predictable performance and optimize use of the physical infrastructure resource. This paper describes the principles for achieving power and cooling capacity management.