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With Cisco's Nexus 7000 switch, IP and Fibre Channel converge

Cisco's massive new Nexus switch combines IP and Fibre Channel storage on a unified 10 Gigabit Ethernet fabric, not InfiniBand, and claims to reduce data center power consumption along the way.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. launched its next-generation data center switch platform today, the Cisco Nexus Series, whose 512 ports of 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) are the manifestation of the company's "Data Center 3.0" (DC 3.0) vision.

For more on 10 Gigabit Ethernet:
Is 10 Gigabit Ethernet catching up with InfiniBand? 

IBM BladeCenter gains combined Ethernet/Fibre Channel card 

The Nexus Series represents the most significant change in Ethernet since the advent of switching, said Doug Gourlay, senior director of marketing in the Data Center Solutions unit at Cisco. "It isn't often you get to do a clean-sheet design of a system, and that is what we have done over the past four years," Gourlay said. "The Nexus Series is analogous to the Toyota creating the Prius; we have created a new class of data center switching."

With the Nexus series, Cisco's innovation was to improve Ethernet's reliability. "We made Ethernet lossless," Gourlay said, thanks to a variety of enhancements, such as multipathing, per-priority pause, and backward-congestion management techniques.

There's been this hard-coded theory that Ethernet must drop packets to make it fast. But we've figured out how to make it fast and lossless.
Doug Gourlay,
senior director of marketingCisco Systems Inc.

Those qualities are essential if the Nexus switch is going to carry storage traffic -- a key proposition of the new platform. "Fibre Channel doesn't drop packets," Gourlay said. In contrast, Ethernet is notoriously lossy. "There's been this hard-coded theory that Ethernet must drop packets to make it fast; but we've figured out how to make it fast and lossless."

"Cisco has spent a lot of time, effort and money developing products for the data center market," said Bob Laliberte, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. "One of the key principles of DC 3.0 is that eventually there will be a unified fabric where server, storage and networking protocols will run over common infrastructure. The Nexus platform is Cisco's foundational technology to enable that unification."

The Nexus Series consists of both hardware and software and includes the following features:

  • the Cisco Nexus 7000 Series switching platform, which combines IP and Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE, across a unified 10 GbE fabric;
  • Cisco's Trusted Security (TrustSec) architecture;
  • the Cisco Nexus Operating System (NX-OS); and
  • integration with the Cisco Data Center Network Manager

Gourlay said Cisco doesn't expect people to rip out existing infrastructure and replace it with the Nexus Series, which starts at $75,000, but instead that the technology will be adopted in new infrastructure buildouts as an alternative to Cisco's Catalyst 6500 switch.

Indeed, in the short term, the Nexus 7000 will probably be used mostly for its IP-switching capabilities, said ESG's Laliberte, and not for storage. "I expect the Nexus platform will be brought into the data center to help with core 10 GbE switching, aggregation and 10 GbE server access and then eventually will be used to connect to the storage domain via [Fibre Channel over Ethernet]," he said.

Nexus 7000 Series
The Cisco Nexus 7000 Series delivers up to 15 terabits per second of switching capacity in a single chassis, supporting up to 512 ports of 10 Gbps Ethernet, and future delivery of 40 and 100 Gbps Ethernet.

The fabric architecture combines Ethernet and storage capabilities into a single platform, providing servers with access to all network and storage resources through a single network interface. The fabric scales performance linearly with each fabric module and is logically partitioned for unicast and multicast traffic, Cisco reports.

According to Cisco, building data centers based on a unified fabric eliminates the need for parallel storage and computational networks, reducing the number of interface cards, cabling and switching infrastructure required. For instance, servers running virtualization like VMware ESX Server often have eight or more network interface cards (NICs) installed, each of which consumes about 25 watts of power -- or 400 watts per server. With the Nexus Series, you can whittle down to just one interface card and a second for redundancy, Gourlay said.

As a result, deploying the Nexus series can reduce overall data center power consumption by 8%; saving more power than the 6% to 7% the networks normally consume, Gourlay explained.

Collapsing several interface cards into one should also facilitate deployment of server virtualization. "Virtualization executives tell me that the biggest barrier to virtualization is network infrastructure," Gourlay said.

Operating System: NX-OS
The Nexus 7000 Series is built on the new NX-OS operating system, which combines Cisco's SAN-OS (the basis of Cisco's MDS Fibre Channel switch family), Layer 2 switching, Layer 3 routing protocols, and virtualization capabilities into one operating system with Cisco's IOS interface.

NX-OS features include the following characteristics:

  • zero-service-disruption upgrades;
  • Virtual device contexts;
  • Graceful systems operations; and
  • XML interfaces to access switch information or any command.

The NX-OS delivers zero-service-disruption system upgrades and includes self-diagnostic capabilities that track each software component in an operating system. When failures are detected, NX-OS engages in a "stateful" process restart without disrupting service. The design provides fault containment and automatic recovery so that processes can be remotely started, stopped and upgraded without human intervention, according to Cisco.

In addition, capabilities such as virtual device contexts allow the system to be partitioned into multiple logical devices, up to eight instances, each with its own processes and command-line interface running independent of one another. This prevents LAN and SAN traffic -- and their respective administrators -- from stepping on one another's toes, Gourlay said.

The Nexus 7000 also introduces a software provisioning model for network resources, akin to I/O virtualization technologies such as Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Virtual Connect for its BladeSystem platform and the InfiniBand-based Xsigo I/O Director. Unlike these technologies, however, the Nexus Series can provision virtual I/O resources across multiple server and storage platforms," Gourlay said.

The Nexus 7000 Series is also the first platform to incorporate Cisco Trusted Security, a new architecture introduced last month that integrates identity- and role-based security across data centers.

The Cisco Data Center Network Manager (DCNM) is also integrated into the Cisco Nexus 7000 Series. DCNM was built on the foundation of Cisco Fabric Manager for storage networks and provides topology discovery and visualization. Nexus 7000 management interfaces are fully compatible with Cisco VFrame Data Center, an orchestration platform that uses network intelligence to provision resources as virtualized services.

Pricing and availability
The Nexus 7000 Series starts at $75,000, can be ordered globally now, and is planned to be generally available in the second quarter of calendar year 2008. Cisco Capital will offer financing for data center products globally. In the U.S., Cisco Capital will offer lease rates starting at 3.99% APR for the Cisco Nexus 7000.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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