Extreme offers data center switching alternative to Cisco

Evolution plan focuses on virtualization, eliminating server soft switches

Extreme Networks this week unveiled a blueprint for migrating data center networks from the physical world to virtualization, and then ultimately to cloud computing. While not as comprehensive or ambitious as Cisco's Data Center 3.0 strategy, Extreme's is nonetheless competitive with Cisco's vision for data center networking and differs significantly in a couple of key areas.

First, Extreme's approach seeks to eliminate virtual switching at the server level while Cisco proposes adding that element to data center servers, specifically the blade servers within its new Unified Computing System platform. Second, Extreme views FibreChannel-over-Ethernet as an interim short-term -- perhaps even an unnecessary step -- towards a unified network/storage switch fabric.

Extreme did not go into detail on its network/storage convergence strategy in this week's update -- it promised more to come on that front. But it did leave little ambiguity on how it views FCoE. According to Chairman and Cofounder Gordon Stitt:

"If FibreChannel is already installed, I wonder if FCoE would be a good choice. Ethernet will ultimately carry storage traffic. Ethernet ultimately wins."  

Cisco, meanwhile, is pushing hard on FCoE adoption. Cisco says it has more than 300 "FCoE enabled" customers and its Nexus data center switches either already have FCoE or will soon support it. Cisco also takes credit for rushing the FCoE standard to completion. 

"Extreme's customers are highly 'network centric,'" says IDC analyst Cindy Borovick. "They are making purchasing decisions based on network performance and scale. This is in contrast to say a customer who is using HP's virtual connect and they are making their decisions based more on the drivers on the compute/storage demand."

Cisco, HP and some of the other leading server vendors -- IBM, Dell -- are also adding a software-based virtual switch to the server itself to handle the growing number of VMs. Cisco's instantiation of this is VN-Link and the Nexus 1000V software-based switch.

But Extreme says virtual soft switches on servers add another element and layer of management complexity to the virtual data center. Meanwhile, moving - or keeping - switching in the network reduces management complexity while increasing switching performance, the company says.

"Servers have not historically been very good at communications technologies," says IDC's Borovick. "When at all possible, best practices in networking design have dictated off-loading the server from having to do network communications. We have seen this happen many times SSL, layer 4-7 to name a few. Now that being said the counter argument is that the world is different now. the advances in multi core processors are changing the nature of what it means to have specialized networking devices....so why not just do some networking services in a industry standard server?"

Extreme proposes keeping switching in the switch and not moving it to the server. The company is a proponent of an emerging IEEE specification called Virtual Ethernet Port Aggregation (VEPA) which, among other attributes, is designed to eliminate the large number of network and virtual switching elements that need to be managed in a data center.

VEPA does this by allowing a physical end station to collaborate with an external switch to provide bridging support between multiple virtual end stations and external networks, according to a presentation on the IEEE Web site.

Work on standardizing VEPA just began last month, Stitt says, adding that Extreme plans to be one of the first vendors to adopt it once it is ratified. 

Extreme's blueprint is expected to not only collide with Cisco's Data Center 3.0 networking strategy, Force10's Virtualization Framework, elements of Juniper's Stratus project and architectures pitched by Brocade, HP and other data center switching competitors.

"I think Extreme has a solution for today's networks, where most network managers are today," Borovick says. "They want to architect a network that can identify and create policies around virtual machines and do that with as little disruption to the current architecture as possible. They are not alone in this message -- we hear this from Force 10 and Blade Network Technologies also. And to some extent from Juniper."

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