With Cisco's Nexus switch, the network now rules the data centre

With Cisco's new Nexus 7000 switch, the vendor has shown that the network is the key to taking data centres to the next level.

With the announcement of its Nexus 7000 super-switch, Cisco has raised the profile of the network in the data centre from utility to possible savoir.

"The big news out of this is that the data centre is becoming increasingly network centric," said Zeus Kerravala, group vice president at The Yankee Group. "It's the first product that can bridge the gap between computing and networking infrastructure."

Doug Gourlay, senior director of marketing for Data Center Solutions at Cisco, said: "This elevates the network to being a peer with servers and storage for delivering critical IT services. This technology makes the three work far better together."

The Nexus 7000, the flagship of Cisco's first new line of network switches since it unveiled the Catalyst product family in 1994, has 15 terabits per second of switching capacity in its chassis, with room for 512 10-Gbps Ethernet, and the capability of upgrading to 40 and 100 Gbps.

Nexus sets the stage for converged Fibre Channel and Ethernet networks. The Nexus products will allow companies to consolidate their separate server and storage networking infrastructures onto one unified network fabric.

"This switch provides a much higher level of throughput, which is becoming increasingly... important in highly virtualised environments for both LAN and storage connectivity," said Bob Laliberte, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. "Initially, the Nexus will work well with high-performance LAN and NAS applications, but eventually -- when IEEE incorporates changes to enable data centre Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet [FCoE] -- this switch will be able to handle both protocols, effectively uniting the data centre under a single protocol."

By eliminating redundant connectivity, data centres will able to reduce the number of network adapter cards and cables attached to their servers. Laliberte said this will result in plenty of savings on power, cooling and capital costs. And fewer people will be needed to run those cards and cables.

Gourlay said Cisco has recognised several drivers that are leading higher-density data centres to turn to the network for help in improving operations. First is a "new class" of applications, such as voice and video, which consume significantly more bandwidth. The second driver is server virtualisation. When you consolidate 10 virtual servers onto one physical server, that single box now deals with the aggregate bandwidth demands of the 10 servers. The third driver is Input-Output consolidation.

"If you [take] a server with five or six Ethernet ports and four storage ports and consolidate down to one or two, there's a significant bandwidth requirement there," Gourlay said.

With Nexus, Cisco has also unveiled a new networking operating system, NX-OS, which combines the vendor's SAN-OS, Layer 2 switching, Layer 3 routing protocols, and advanced virtualisation into one OS. Laliberte said this will provide networking professionals with a single view into the network and storage infrastructure.

Cindy Borovick, program director for data centre networks at IDC, said larger companies and service providers are consolidating down to increasingly dense data centres that need high-performance networks to support them. With virtualisation of servers and storage gaining more traction, companies need networks that can support that, too.

"Most data centers have a separate network for high-performance clusters and a network for storage," Borovick said. "Cisco is saying you don't need all these different network silos. You can have one network to support everything."

With Nexus, the networking layer is now just as important as servers and storage, Laliberte said. In an environment where the servers and storage layers are highly virtualised, it will become very important that the physical server or endpoint has connectivity to any storage array so that virtual machines can migrate from any physical server and still access data.

"Enterprise Strategy Group research shows that 86% of current server virtualisation deployments are supported by network storage environments," Laliberte said. "And of those, 44% leverage network-attached storage and could benefit from the increased throughput offered by the Nexus. With this type of scenario, the ability for this connectivity layer to be able to adapt to highly dynamic environments is very important. This will be even more relevant when FCoE is completed and there is a unified fabric."

With a price of US$75,000, Nexus 7000 is a high-end product. Kerravala said it will initially appeal to governments, very large enterprises and service providers. In another two to three years, the technology will become more mainstream. Cisco is taking orders for the switch now. It will be generally available in the second quarter of this year.

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