Start-up virtualizes I/O connectivity

By Kevin Komiega

Over the past few years virtualization has evolved from an industry buzzword into a full-fledged revolutionary force in the data center. But as virtual servers continue to gain popularity, managing connectivity between the servers and storage architectures has remained cumbersome and largely unchanged. In an effort to overcome the growing demands virtual machines are putting on server I/O, start-up Xsigo Systems is taking the concept of virtualization and applying it to fixed I/O infrastructures with a new director that can replace multiple physical server and storage interface cards with software-based virtual adapters using a single InfiniBand Host Channel Adapter (HCA).

The Xsigo VP780 I/O Director consolidates cabling and replaces multiple physical network interface cards (NICs) and host bus adapters (HBAs) with virtual resources that appear to applications and operating systems as physical components.

John Toor, vice president of marketing at Xsigo, says the idea behind virtualizing connectivity is a simple one: Fewer parts equals easier management.

“The director connects any server to any point in the outside world-for example, into a SAN via Fibre Channel or Ethernet. We can accomplish this because we can remove the physical NICs and HBAs from the server now that what’s going on inside the server has been virtualized,” says Toor.

Xsigo’s director uses an InfiniBand HCA to plug into servers. The device uses InfiniBand as the pipe, but the protocols are Ethernet and Fibre Channel. According to Toor, servers and storage devices recognize the virtual HBAs and NICs created by the director just as they would their physical counterparts.

“The virtual connection looks exactly like the physical card it replaced, but the functions are provided by software instead of hardware,” explains Toor. “We’re doing for NICs and HBAs what VMware has done for processors.”

With the Xsigo I/O director, IT managers can provision I/O resources on- the-fly without changing network and storage configurations and without physically entering the data center. Toor claims common tasks such as moves, additions, and changes can be completed in 1/100th the time.

The Xsigo system replaces physical cards with virtual network and storage interfaces, called vNICs and vHBAs, which can be deployed and migrated among servers without impacting network and storage mappings.

The result is fewer cables and fewer hardware components, and the ability to deploy up to 32 virtual NICs and 32 virtual HBAs on the same connection without taking down a server.

According to the Storage I/O Group, performance issues are a growing concern for data-center operational teams and are causing system and application slowdowns, sluggish response times, and availability issues. I/O performance problems also take a toll on personnel by forcing organizations to hire additional IT staff to troubleshoot, analyze, re-configure, and react to application delays and service disruptions.

Greg Schulz, founder of the StorageIO Group, says virtualizing connectivity between servers and storage can yield a wide range of benefits.

“There are cost savings to be found in less cabling, less complexity, and reducing the time it takes to make changes,” says Schulz. “Consolidation drives up utilization and can increase performance while driving down cost.”

Other options

There are other vendors using different techniques to virtualize I/O. Schulz says Cisco’s acquisition of InfiniBand specialist Topspin armed the networking giant with an arsenal of InfiniBand-based server switching technologies for creating unified adapters for server-to-storage connectivity.

He adds that HBA vendors such as Emulex and QLogic are developing products based on the N_Port ID Virtualization (NPIV) Fibre Channel facility, which allows multiple N_Port IDs to share a single physical N_Port.

There is also a case to be made for the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard as a way to provide I/O consolidation over Ethernet and reduce network complexity (see “Making the case for FCoE,” InfoStor, August 2007, p. 10). However, according to Schulz, there are factors that may play into Xsigo’s favor.

The VP780 I/O Director replaces network adapters with virtual interfaces to connect servers to storage resources.
Click here to enlarge image

“Some may argue the case for simply using Ethernet, which is valid except that you can’t run all protocols over Ethernet. Others might wait for FCoE, which should be available in a few years, but Xsigo has a window of opportunity before that happens,” says Schulz.

Schulz adds that Xsigo’s open architecture may also give the company a leg up. “One of the differentiators for Xsigo is that its technology is fairly server-neutral and doesn’t force customers to rip out current servers or put in a particular type of server to achieve results,” he says.

Xsigo’s VP780 I/O Director is supported by storage and server certifications from IBM and Hewlett-Packard and has been proven interoperable with equipment from Dell, EMC, Juniper, and others. Toor claims Xsigo’s technology interoperates with hardware and software from virtually any vendor.

The VP780 I/O Director is priced from $30,000. ❏


Cisco, Dell, EMC, Emulex, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Juniper, QLogic, Xsigo Systems

This article was originally published on October 01, 2007