Data centers take the 10 GbE plunge

Spurred by falling prices and dead-ended support on older hardware, data centers are finally upgrading from 1 GbE to 10 GbE Ethernet networks.

Data centers are going 10 G. And it’s about time, say many IT professionals.

After a few years of slow adoption, then fits and starts, 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) networking is on the must-have list for many data centers that have wrung what they could out of their aged and slower 1G pipes.

Data center pros finally realize that their “one-gig networks aren’t cutting it,” said Pete Sclafani, CIO and co-founder at 6connect Inc., a San Francisco-area data center consultancy.

One factor is that pricing for needed components like host bus adapters (HBAs) and Network Interface Cards (NICs) has fallen enough to make 10 GbE equipment palatable even to companies with recession-strapped IT budgets that are probably eyeing an upgrade cycle anyway.

“Ten-gig NICs went from $5,000 to $1,500,” and that certainly helps the argument for upgrading, said Scott Mellegaard, data center specialist with 3RP Co., a Phoenix company that specializes in technology planning for ERP implementations..

Hewlett-Packard, Dell and other manufacturers now offer very price-competitive 10 GbE switches, said Jason Sparks, VP of storage and systems for Xiologix., an IT solution provider. They’re making price less of an issue than in the past.

Many data center pros would argue that most data centers should have upgraded long ago, maintaining that server virtualization pretty much mandates the move to 10 GbE.

Data center networking pros said the 1 GbE-to-10 GbE migration mirrors almost exactly the move in the last decade from 100-meg to 1 G networks, which also took a good six years to transpire.

Vendor end-of-support policies spur migrations
Many networking vendors are forcing upgrades by ending support on older 1 GbE equipment, Sparks said.

One Xiologix data center customer moved to 10 GbE blade infrastructure not so much because it needed that bandwidth as that the vendor priced the newer gear so attractively that there really was no choice.

“[The customer] was on older [Cisco] 6509 chassis and Cisco end-of-lifed them. That forced a move to  5000 switches and, in return for Cisco’s unified fabric, Cisco threw it all in at the same cost as 1 G,” he noted.

Mark Melvin, CTO of Eplus Inc., a Washington D.C.-area systems integrator, said his company has seen good pickup on 10 GbE migrations for the past year.

Ten Gigabit Ethernet, in his view, is just one basic piece of a much bigger converged infrastructure puzzle. “ If you’re doing virtualization, you really don’t have a choice. You need 10 G for the management, the ability to connect with use ranges of 20 to 40 VMs per box … for that you need 10 G. One G won’t get it done unless all you’re doing is file and print and [Active Directory]. If you have applications, you’d better have 10 G.”

Some disagreed that virtualization makes the 10 G decision a no brainer -- at least in the many shops that don’t have the management mandates Melvin mentioned.

 “Virtualization really doesn’t require 10 G networks. … Virtualization is much more memory sensitive than bandwidth sensitive,” said Sparks. But even he said 10 GbE’s time has come.

 Even as data centers start updating their switches, routers and (perhaps) cabling, one stumbling block remains. Until Intel starts building 10 GbE right on the system boards, there will be some hurdles to pure 10 G adoption. Sparks and others said they expect Intel to start shipping such 10-GbE aware boards sometime next year.

The move to a faster network infrastructure can be incremental or a wholesale changeover down to the wires, depending on what’s already in place.

“If a data center is running Cat 5 wiring, you may need to rewire. If Cat6, maybe not. It also depends on the distance covered,” Melvin said.

Cat5 stands for “fifth-generation” cabling commonly used in older Ethernet networks. It runs four pairs of twisted-pair copper wiring. Sixth-generation, or CAT6, cabling likewise uses four pairs of copper wiring but fully utilizes all of those pairs.

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