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NextIO simplifies top of rack switching with I/O virtualisation

NextIO has developed virtualised input/output (I/O) equipment that simplifies switch design in the data centre.


"Our box takes a single virtual NIC, virtualises that and shares that out with all the servers in a rack"

John Fruehe, NextIO 


The platform, known as vNET, replaces both Fibre Channel and Ethernet top-of-rack switches in the data centre and is suited for use with small one rack unit (1RU) servers. The platform uses PCI Express (PCIe) to implement I/O virtualisation.

"Where we tend to have the best success [with vNET] is with companies deploying a lot of racks - such as managed service providers, service providers and cloud providers - or are going through some sort of IT transition," says John Fruehe, vice president of outbound marketing at NextIO.

Three layers of Ethernet switches are typically used in the data centre. The top-of-rack switches aggregate traffic from server racks and link to end-of-row, aggregator switches that in turn interface to core switches. "These [core switches] aggregate all the traffic from all the mid-tier [switches]," says Fruehe. "What we are tackling is the top-of-rack stuff; we are not touching end-of-row or the core."

A similar hierarchical architecture is used for storage: a top-of-rack Fibre Channel switch, end-of-row aggregation and a core that connects to the storage area network. NextIO's vNET platform also replaces the Fibre Channel top-of-rack switch.

"We are replacing those two top-of-rack switches - Fibre Channel and Ethernet - with a single device that aggregates both traffic types," says Fruehe.

vNET is described by Fruehe as an extension of the server I/O. "All or our connections are PCI Express, we have a simple PCI Express card that sits in the server, and a PCI Express cable," he says. "To the server, it [vNET] looks like a PCI Express hub with a bunch of I/O cards attached to it." The server does not discern that the I/O cards are shared across multiple servers or that they reside in an external box.

For IT networking staff, the box appears as a switch providing 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) ports to the end-of-rack switches, while for storage personnel, the box provides multiple Fibre Channel connections to the end-of-row storage aggregation switch. "Most importantly there is no difference to the software," says Fruehe.


I/O virtualisation

NextIO's technology pools the I/O bandwidth available and splits it to meet the various interface requirements. A server is assigned I/O resources yet it believes it has the resources all to itself. "Our box directs the I/O the same way a hypervisor directs the CPU and memory inside a server for virtualisation," says Fruehe.  

There are two NextIO boxes available that support up to 15 or up to 30 servers. One has 30, 10 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps) links and the other 15, 20Gbps links. These are implemented as 30x4 and 15x8 PCIe connections, respectively, that connect directly to the servers.

A customer most likely uses two vNET platforms at the top of the rack, the second being used for redundancy. "If a server is connected to two, you have 20 or 40 Gig of aggregate bandwidth," says Fruehe.

NextIO exploits two PCIe standards known as single root I/O virtualisation (SRIOV) and multi-root I/O virtualisation (MRIOV).

SRIOV allows a server to take an I/O connection like a network card, a Fibre Channel card or a drive controller and share it across multiple server virtual machines. MRIOV extends the concept by allowing an I/O controller to be shared by multiple servers. "Think of SRIOV as being the standard inside the box and MRIOV as the standard that allows multiple servers to share the I/O in our vNET box," says Fruehe.

Each server uses only a single PCIe connection to the vNET with the MRIOV's pooling and sharing happening inside the platform.



The vNET platform showing the PCIe connections to the servers, the 10GbE interfaces to the network and the 8 Gig Fibre Channel connections to the storage area networks (SANs). Source: NextIO


Meanwhile, vNET's front panel has eight shared slots. These house Ethernet controllers and/or Fibre Channel controllers, and these are shared across the multiple servers.

In affect an application running on the server communicates with its operating system to send the traffic over the PCIe bus to the vNET platform, where it is passed to the relevant network interface controller (NIC) or Fibre Channel card.

The NIC encapsulates the data in Ethernet frames before being sent over the network. The same applies with the host bus adaptor (HBA) that converts the data to be stored to Fibre Channel. "All these things are happening over the PCIe bus natively, and they are handled in different streams," says Fruehe.

In effect, a server takes a single physical NIC and partitions it into multiple virtual NICs for all the virtual machines running on the server. "Our box takes a single virtual NIC, virtualises that and shares that out with all the servers in a rack" says Fruehe. "We are using PCIe as the transport all the way back to the virtual machine and all the way forward to that physical NIC; that is all a PCIe channel."

The result is a high bandwidth, low latency link that is also scalable.

NextIO has a software tool that allows bandwidth to be assigned on the fly. "With vNET, you open up a console and grab a resource and drag it over to a server and in 2-3 seconds you've just provisioned more bandwidth for that server without physically touching anything."

The provisioning is between vNET and the servers. In the case of networking traffic, this is in 10GbE chucks. It is the server's own virtualisation tools that do the partitioning between the various virtual machines.

vNET has an additional four vNET slots - for a total of 12 -  for assignment to individual servers. "If you are taking all the I/O cards out of the server, you can use smaller form-factor servers," says Fruehe. But such 1RU servers may not have room for a specific I/O card. Accordingly, the four slots are available to host cards - such as a solid-state drive flash memory or a graphics processing unit accelerator - that may be needed by individual servers.


Operational benefits

There are power and cooling benefits using the vNET platform. First, smaller form factor servers draw less power while using PCIe results in fewer cables and better air flow.

To understand why fewer cables are needed, a typical server uses a quad 1GbE controller and a dual-ported Fibre Channel controller, resulting in six cables. To have a redundant system, a second set of Ethernet and Fibre Channel cards are used, doubling the cables to a dozen. With 30 servers in a rack, the total is 360 cables.

Using NextIO's vNET, in contrast, only two PCIe cables are required per server or 60 cables in total.  

On the front panel, there are eight shared slots and these can all be either dual 10GbE port cards or dual 8GbE port Fibre Channel cards or a mix of both.  This gives a total of 160GbE or 128 Gig of Fibre Channel. NextIO plans to upgrade the platforms to 40GbE interfaces for an overall capacity of 640GbE.

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