Speed is the new watchword in data centre performance and management simplicity the new mantra. In the digitally dependent, hyper competitive business environment of today, speed of innovation is often as important as modernization itself, a consideration that is driving demand for rapid app and IT service delivery. At the same time, increasing business reliance on digital systems often means add on to traditional, legacy resources, resulting in the creation of bigger, more complex and more cumbersome data centre environments, a trend that in turn impacts infrastructure — and hence business agility. HP has been working for some time to address these dual data centre challenges through ‘converged infrastructure’, an approach to IT deployment that aims to speed and simplify service delivery by improving the connections between server, storage and networking components. Earlier this month, the company moved closer to this goal with a new Virtual Connect module and two new HP FlexFabric adapters for the HP BladeSystem, technologies that can run in physical, virtual and cloud-computing environments.
According to Vineeth Ram, VP, product marketing for HP servers, the primary inhibitor to speed in service delivery is the lack of "available bandwidth shared across applications, storage and networking resources," an issue that HP is attempting to resolve through ‘wire-once’ innovation, which simplifies networking since connections only have to be established once before software automates the process, and new fabric adapters that enable simultaneous stream of Ethernet and fibre channels. Specifically, HP has announced:
- Two new HP FlexFabric Dual-port 20Gb 630 Series adapters for the HP BladeSystem — a FlexibleLOM, or native LAN on motherboard, with 2 connections out into the networking environment, and the second adapter, which has additional NICs or MES cards to add multiple (up to 4 20G connections from a server out to a switching environment). Able to stream converged 10Gb Ethernet and 8Gb Fibre Channel storage simultaneously over a native 20Gb KR2-based port, HP claims these adapters are unique in the industry; and
- A new HP Virtual Connect FlexFabric-20/40 F8 module for the HP BladeSystem, the first module to deliver 40Gb Ethernet connectivity, which HP calculates can deliver a 4x increase in uplink bandwidth and 2.3x increase in aggregate bandwidth.
This latest round of HP networking innovation is part and parcel of the HP blade enclosure system. As Robert Checketts, group manager of HP’s enterprise server product marketing, noted, while servers and storage sit on one side of the enclosure, interconnects, which might include switches, fibre channels, Ethernet switches, etc., reside on the other in the HP set up. "Virtual Connect," he explained, "is actually the simplest way for customers to connect servers to storage and to networking," as it is possible, for example, to simply drop a direct connection between the Virtual Connect module and a native fibre channel storage array with a single cable with two transceivers on either end, and eliminate the need for fibre channel networking devices such as directors, or switches. In larger data centres, the Virtual Connect solution would typically connect into top of rack or end of row switches, taking advantage of large bandwidth capabilities in the new module adapters.
In addition, Virtual Connect acts as "the point of convergence in our blade systems": the new module and adapters are "convergence centric," Checketts added, meaning simultaneous stream of native fibre channel, gigabit Ethernet, management and other services, including iSCSI and NFS storage protocols, is possible across a single port. Use of the same switch for Ethernet and fibre, along with reduced cabling (to date the technology has removed 60,000 km of cable from data centres — 1.5x the distance needed to wrap around the earth, HP claims) translates into reduced investment in hardware infrastructure for the customer.
The new Virtual Connect FlexFabric-20/40 F8 module has also enabled record breaking network speed: according to Checketts, it "has 40Gb on the uplink side and 20Gb on the downlink, a first that is unique to Hewlett Packard. We are the first to be able to deliver 20Gb across a single pipe down to the server from any blade server interconnect. Not only do we have the larger bandwidth connection, but we’re able to stream 8Gb native fibre channel and 10Gb Ethernet at the same time across the same port, and still leave enough room for additional bandwidth."
While Virtual Connect delivers various services via a single, large bandwidth connection, Checketts noted that services are virtualized and presented to the customer’s server management system as four discrete physical connections, the goal being to allow prioritization of traffic. The solution also provides the tools that network administrators are familiar with, enabling management of the HP devices through Virtual Connect or through standard legacy interfaces such as SNMP. The Virtual Connect team has created interfaces to all HP tools — for server and network management softwares, including SDN, but is encouraging use of HP OneView, a platform that provides centralized management of all resources, in order to simplify deployment and operation of infrastructure. In the past, HP offered three different management tools (Virtual Connect Manager, Virtual Connect Enterprise Manager, and Insight Controller) to leverage Virtual Connect: today, HP OneView replaces all three, managing not only Virtual Connect and the interconnect side of the BladeSystem enclosure, but also the servers as well — a single system for end-to-end management of the HP or other blade systems.
Summarizing the business value that the new Virtual Connect FlexFabric-20/40 F8 module can deliver, HP has provided metrics that speak to:
increased performance — service at the speed of business — through network convergence, increased bandwidth capacity and reduced latency (by up to 73%);
more efficiency — reduced TCO for the data centre — via 95% hardware savings and 65% cost savings with wire-once HP Virtual Connect technology as compared to rack environments, 86% fewer components and 50% lower costs using HP Virtual Connect Flat SAN technology with HP 3PAR storage; and
greater simplicity — for faster results — through HP OneView management which delivers a real-time and integrated view of network traffic, as well as 9x the troubleshooting speed than in legacy networking through proactive address of network congestion using sFlow.
As Checketts explained, Virtual Connect can run in heterogeneous environments, connecting native fibre channel storage with up to 16 servers: however, some scenarios will provide greater benefits than others: "There are always some savings, but the more you use OneView, the more you use the direct attach capabilities in Virtual Connect, and if you are moving from a traditional rack environment into a blade environment, those are the places you are really going to see the biggest savings."
In many ways, the 40Gbps speeds that HP is promising in Virtual Connect represent table stakes in the networking world (some services deliver 100 Gb). Asked what kinds of organizations would require this kind of bandwidth, Checketts pointed to any organization that is doing a lot of database work, data mining or running a business analytics environments — "anyone that is pumping a lot of data across the pipes" — in other words, virtually all enterprises that wish to remain competitive today. But new capabilities, such as the 20 Gb download speed on a single connection, developed through close partnership with QLogic on the adapters, are helping to position HP as a leader in this field, to say nothing of networking convergence which allows the same switches to be used for Ethernet, fibre and SANs — emerging practice that puts HP on the innovation edge.
 The "FlexFabric" name has been used for eight years in the HP BladeSystem Virtual Connect product line, and also for several years to describe multi-port connectivity in HP’s networking systems.