Dell will flesh out its new virtual networking strategy at Interop next month when it shows off a 40-Gigabit Ethernet switch for its PowerEdge M1000e blade system, extends its management software and shows its equipment working with the OpenFlow standard for SDN (software-defined networking).
The company's once-lackluster networking business got a shot in the arm last year with the acquisition of Force10 Networks, which was a pioneer in 10-Gigabit Ethernet and is marching quickly into networking's next frontier, 40-Gigabit. Force10 is now integrated into Dell, and the new parent company is offering an architecture to handle connectivity all the way from virtualised applications and storage through network switches, said Arpit Joshipura, head of marketing at Dell Networking.
Dell plans to accommodate both emerging virtualised network technology and traditional box-oriented infrastructures with its Virtual Network Architecture (VNA), announced last month, which encompasses everything from packet switching and network services to policy control and management. VNA separates both basic networking protocols and services such as security and load-balancing from the underlying hardware that typically carries them out, though it doesn't require a hard changeover from existing systems. It is built around a "distributed core" of smaller switches rather than the large chassis-based network gear from rivals such as Cisco, Dell said.
Combining that architecture with the rest of the company's sprawling portfolio, Dell says it can provide enterprises with storage, computing and networks with at least 10-Gigabit speed from end to end. And through automation, Dell intends to make it easier to manage networks.
"My view of networking is, it should be as simple as servers," Joshipura said.
The company is set to introduce the Dell Force10 MXL 10/40GbE switch, the first product to bring a Force10 switch into a Dell blade chassis. The MXL is a Layer 2 and Layer 3 routing switch with performance and features similar to Force10's S4810 data centre top-of-rack switch. It has 32 dedicated internal 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports and can be configured with as many as 24 uplink ports of 10-Gigabit Ethernet or six 40-Gigabit Ethernet uplinks.
As many as six of the switches can be logically stacked within one enclosure or across different enclosures and managed as a single device. The switches will be available in the summer and priced between $10,000 and $15,000 depending on configuration and software.
In a blade server chassis, Dell's high-performance switching technology lets more traffic between the blades remain within the chassis, according to Dell. That saves top-of-rack switches higher up in the network hierarchy from dealing with packets that never had to leave the chassis anyway.
The Force10 acquisition made Dell a leading player in 40-Gigabit Ethernet, the standard at the cutting edge of data centre networking. Increasing traffic among virtual machines spread across growing data centres is expected to drive the 40-Gigabit market, but for the next two years, the major trend will be deploying 10-Gigabit Ethernet, according to Dell'Oro Group analyst Alan Weckel. There were only about 6,600 ports of 40-Gigabit Ethernet sold in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to Weckel. Still, he ranked Dell as the biggest vendor in that space.
The 40-Gigabit Ethernet ports in the MXL switch can be used to link the blade server chassis to a top-of-rack switch using fewer cables than with 10-Gigabit, reducing complexity and port count, Joshipura said.
Dell hopes to place itself at the cutting edge of virtualised networking, too, demonstrating interoperability with a SDN controller from Big Switch Networks. Big Switch makes controllers that use OpenFlow, the SDN standard from the Open Networking Foundation that is shaking up the networking industry. Software-defined networking puts all the important decision-making in networking into software that can run on standard servers, leaving networking devices to carry out the simple, fast task of moving packets.
Though Dell's VNA will work with OpenFlow, Joshipura said that standard can't carry out some of the functions that are possible through VNA, such as automatically provisioning virtual LANs when virtual machines are moved from one physical server to another.
The concentration of enterprise intelligence in data centres, and the consolidation of data centres through cloud computing, could give Dell a chance to shine in networking, Dell'Oro analyst Weckel said. Unlike in the past, almost all the growth in Ethernet switching over the next five years will be in gear for data centres, he said. The battle for new business is coming to Dell's home turf.
"We should expect some fairly violent and significant share shift over the next two years," Weckel said. However, dominant networker Cisco, which is simultaneously gaining ground in the server business, isn't on the verge of giving up its leadership, he added. "If Dell is taking share, it's going to be at the detriment of HP or Juniper or Brocade, probably not so much at the detriment of Cisco," Weckel said.
Among other networking announcements, Dell is also introducing enhancements to the Dell Force10 Operating System that are designed primarily for the S4810 top-of-rack switch. One new feature is the ability to automatically provision virtual LANs, with no manager intervention, when virtual machines have been moved within the network.