Blade servers and convergence pick up steam

Blade servers are marching into the data center in increasing numbers -- often dragging converged networking with them

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Instead of producing a blade offering that could adapt to any potential customer's connectivity needs, Cisco has gone all in with convergence and almost completely commoditized connectivity within the UCS platform. The story starts with the collection of virtual interface cards and converged networking adapters supported by the blades. Unlike HP, Cisco has opted not to include any LAN-on-Motherboard in its blade hardware, instead allowing the customer to choose what kind of connectivity is required for each blade separately.

The most interesting of the available mezzanine cards is the M81KR, which is targeted at virtualization hosts. It allows up to 128 virtual PCIe devices -- be they FCoE HBAs or Ethernet NICs -- to be deployed per card. It also supports Cisco's VN-Link technology, allowing network configuration and policies to dynamically follow individual virtual machines as they move across virtual host blades and chassis. Other more "traditional" CNA options are also available, and it's somewhat telling that Cisco is forcing me to refer to a CNA as "traditional" to set it apart from what it's doing.

All the traffic from the mezzanine cards on the blades is aggregated by a pair of redundant fabric extenders in the back of the blade chassis. Those fabric extenders are essentially one-size-fits-all affairs that support four proprietary 10Gbps uplinks each. These interfaces attach to external fabric interconnect switches based on the same NX-OS software that runs Cisco's Nexus line of converged network switches (the fact that they also run Cisco's UCS Manager software distinguishes them from their Nexus brethren).

Depending upon the fabric interconnect switches chosen, as many as 40 eight-bay blade chassis can be supported from a single redundant switch pair and can support a mix-and-match quantity of standards-based lossless 10Gbps Ethernet and 8Gbps Fibre Channel uplinks into the rest of the data center network, be it Nexus or otherwise.

To be sure, Cisco's offering is targeted at HP's upmarket. Due to the cost of acquiring the required fabric interconnect switches, you aren't likely to see many single-chassis UCS deployments. HP has covered the territory well, even supporting a convertible rack/tabletop eight-slot chassis. That said, Cisco's "bandwidth is bandwidth" approach that extends from the adapter in the blade all the way through to the chassis-aggregation layer and beyond is significantly more "converged" than anyone else's.

Even if you're in the market for a new blade solution or network convergence hardware right now, this is almost undoubtedly the way of the future. Unless the whole market takes a hit, you can expect to see blade hardware and the converged fabric it brings along continue to make gains in popularity and market share. The day is not far off when standard rack-mount servers with traditional NICs are the notable exception, not the rule.

This article, "Blade servers and convergence pick up steam," originally appeared at Read more of Matt Prigge's Information Overload blog and follow the latest developments in storage at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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