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IBM Virtual Fabric: Emulex Wins Battle In 10 Gigabit War

Today Emulex announced a design win with IBM's first Virtual Fabric solution. IBM Virtual Fabric increases the network capacity of its BladeCenter line of blade servers to support more virtual machines per blade; allows data center mangers to provision network resources; and unifies Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks to reduce cost. IBM Virtual Fabric is made possible by 10 gigabit Ethernet switches from privately held Blade Network Technologies that are tightly integrated with 10 gigabit Universal Converged Network Adapters (UCNAs) exclusively from Emulex. IBM expects Virtual Fabric to be configured in a substantial percentage of BladeCenter systems that start shipping in Q4 of this year, which means Emulex has just won an important battle in the 10 gigabit CNA war.

Only a few short years ago, a typical server had one processor with the power of the server measured by the speed (GHz) of the single core inside the processor. During this era, the performance bottleneck among servers, networks and storage was typically the server.  To overcome the potential bottleneck, a common practice in a data center was to dedicate these single-processor/single-core servers to one business application. Server unit sales grew steadily as more business applications emerged and expanded. Then a few years ago the growth of server units suddenly flattened as vendors began packing more processor cores into a single server and as data center managers dramatically increased the utilization of each server with virtualization software. IDC named this phenomenon "The Virtualization Effect."

While growth in the overall server market has flattened, there is still rapid growth for modular blade servers that offer maximum compute density and Lego-like configuration flexibility. A single compact BladeCenter chassis from IBM can house up to 14 blade servers, each with two quad-core processors for a total of 112 cores. If a data center manager configures one virtual server for each core, over a hundred applications can be supported by a box the size of a microwave oven. As data center managers continue to deploy blade servers and server virtualization together, this massive aggregation of computing power is quickly moving the performance bottleneck from the server to the network. And with up to 28 Ethernet and Fibre Channel Mezzanine cards, and as many as 6 one gigabit blade switch modules, there are up to 102 cables coming out of the microwave-sized BladeCenter Chassis.

The typical solution to this problem is to cram even more network capacity into a server, deliver the network resources on a per virtual machine basis, all while reducing the huge number of cables.

IBM Virtual Fabric solves the problem by first providing 10 times the Ethernet network capacity on a BladeCenter chassis with 10 gigabit switch and adapter ports replacing 1 gigabit switch ports. Then the Network Interface Cards (Emulex calls then Converged Network Adapters and IBM calls them Virtual Fabric Adapters) enable the network capacity to be provisioned to virtual servers with a feature called vNIC. Each adapter can be carved up into as many as 8 virtual NICs, each one guaranteeing a specified level of bandwidth to a virtual server. In the near future, IBM will release Virtual Fabric support for FCoE and iSCSI storage networks. This will allow data center managers to reduce the number of mezzanine cards and cables by at least half by deploying a single 10 gigabit converged network instead of separate Ethernet data networks and Fibre Channel storage networks.

For IBM, Blade Network Technologies and Emulex, Virtual Fabric is spelled o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y.