The Virtual Connect FlexFabric module for HP BladeSystem was officially announced today. This brings two new capabilities to the Virtual Connect family, iSCSI offload and FCoE. There are two key components; an I/O module for the BladeSystem enclosure, and a FlexFabric Converged Network Adapter (CNA) that is integrated on the G7 blade and available as a mezzanine card for G6 and later blades. The FlexFabric adapter combines the functionality of a 10Gb NIC and a Fibre Channel HBA into a single device that also support full iSCSI offload.
These new offerings are part of HP’s FlexFabric network architecture. HP FlexFabric is the networking ‘pillar’ of HP’s Converged Infrastructure strategy. HP’s FlexFabric describes an end-to-end data center network architecture that includes network infrastructure, management, and security. Virtual Connect is a key network server edge component of that architecture. According to my friends over at HP Networking “The HP FlexFabric architecture combines advanced, standards-based networking technologies with a new modular architecture that optimizes connectivity in server virtualization-focused environments.” 1 I expect a blog from them very soon with more details on FlexFabric.
Back to the Virtual Connect FlexFabric Module. FCoE is grabbing many headlines today, but iSCSI shouldn’t be overlooked. iSCSI is a mature technology that offers performance required for most applications at a very cost effective price point. For a proof point on how iSCSI can scale to meet the toughest enterprise class workloads, check out our reference architecture for VDI http://h20195.www2.hp.com/v2/GetPDF.aspx/4AA1-9256
In addition to full iSCSI offload, the Virtual Connect FlexFabric module supports and manages iSCSI boot. The iSCSI boot parameters can be managed as part of the Virtual Connect server profile, creating a stateless server using a cost effective iSCSI boot device. This capability was only available on Native Fibre Channel in previous versions of Virtual Connect, now it’s available on all storage protocols supported by the Virtual Connect FlexFabric module; Fibre Channel, FCoE and iSCSI.
The Virtual Connect FlexFabric module’s FCoE capability has some unique advantages too. By combining Ethernet and Fibre Channel into a single unit, it reduces the number of I/O modules within the blade infrastructure, reducing complexity and cost. As HP offers the only mainstream blade infrastructure that can support 10GB on the system board, it is the only blade server family that can embed the CNA on the system board. This again has the advantages in simplicity and cost, no extra components to buy.
A third advantage is how the FCoE capabilities are contained within a blade enclosure. While the FCoE standards are complete and just waiting for final ratification, that isn’t the whole story. Ethernet by it’s very nature is a very lossy protocol. Fibre Channel requires lossless delivery. While Ethernet can retransmit just the lost frames, Fibre Channel must retransmit the entire transaction, which could be several megabits. So Ethernet had to be modified to provide a lossless transport capability to support FCoE. These modifications are defined in a new set of standards called Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE). Without getting into the detail, only one out of the three CEE standards are complete. This creates risk for any products implementing pre-production standards. By keeping the FCoE within the blade enclosure, early adopters can take advantage of these emerging standards but still be protected while the standards are still in flux.
It’s important to note that the Virtual Connect FlexFabric module doesn’t replace the existing Virtual Connect modules. It is possible to mix and match pairs of Virtual Connect modules as needed. For applications with high I/O requirements, traditional Ethernet and Fibre Channel might still be the preferred option. So whether you plan on sticking with conventional Ethernet and Fibre Channel, need better support for iSCSI, or you’re looking to move to FCoE, Virtual Connect has a solution to fill the need.
For more information on HP FlexFabric see: http://www.hp.com/go/flexfabric
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As always, these opinions are mine and don't necessarily represent the views of HP.