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Force10 data center switch delivers impressive performance

David Newman | March 21, 2011
Extensive testing of 48-port, 10Gigabit switch uncovers ASIC-related anomalies, software limitations

Usually cut-through devices usually have two properties: They tend to be very fast (since they start forwarding a frame before it's fully received, unlike store-and-forward devices which wait until the entire frame is cached before switching it) and they have roughly the same average latency regardless of frame length.

With the S4810, these properties better described the store-and-forward results than cut-through ones.

This is partially explained by a characteristic of the Broadcom 56845 application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) used in the S4810. According to Force10, the chip still acts in store-and-forward mode for frames shorter than 624 bytes, even when set for cut-through operation. This could explain higher cut-through latency for medium-length frames (say, between 256 and 624 bytes) but it's still puzzling why cut-through latency would be higher for longer frames. The testing RFCs require different measurement methods for store-and-forward and cut-through latency, and we checked and rechecked results to verify we'd used the appropriate methods for each. Force10 and other labs also have confirmed this behavior.

Given the latency results, we'd recommend leaving the switch in its default store-and-forward mode. There's a performance advantage for doing so, and users get the extra benefit of error checking that store-and-forward operation provides.

MAC address capacity

Another anomaly appeared in tests of MAC address capacity, which determines how many devices can be attached to a switch. This metric is especially important for virtualization and cloud computing, where virtual machine counts in a single broadcast domain can rise into the tens of thousands.

The S4810's data sheet states its MAC capacity as 128,000; in practice, we found the limit to be slightly lower, averaging 117,145 addresses depending on which set of pseudorandom addresses we used. The switch ASIC's hashing algorithm accounts for the difference. To save memory and speed lookup times, ASICs store a hash of each MAC address. With a particular set of addresses perfectly matched to a given hashing algorithm, no two hashes will ever overlap or "collide." In practice vendors cannot predict what addresses customers will use, so some collisions are inevitable.

What's more, the actual number of addresses the switch can learn in production is likely to be far lower than 117,000. Typically, address capacity tests are conducted using only three ports. When we configured the Spirent TestCenter traffic generator to offer a set of nearly 100,000 pseudorandom addresses across 48 ports, the switch learned only about 94,000 of these due to hash collisions. Through trial and error, we found that the switch would learn at most around 25,000 addresses without hash collisions when we distributed addresses across 48 ports.


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