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Will enhanced servers do away with need for switches?

Jim Duffy | Jan. 8, 2015
Some functions will likely be subsumed, but disaggregation not likely to replace ToR switches.

In the same vein, Rivers is skeptical of the idea of using optical technology in the data center to directly connect servers and bypass a ToR switch.

"A large file takes less than a second to transfer, so it's hard to get leverage out of that technology," Rivers says. "It's hard to see optical crosspoint switches being the fundamental technology element that changes networking forever. They've existed for quite some time."

As will ToR switches, according to Intel. Even though servers will take on more switching intelligence and local function, the horsepower will remain with a physically separate and distinct switch.

"The ToR will still be relevant in the data center," says Steve Price, general manager of Intel's Communications Infrastructure Division. "The trend is that network intelligence is also increasing in the server shelf. Policy enforcement and multi-tenant tunneling capability today occurs in either the vSwitch or the ToR, for example. With increased compute density within the rack and the emergence of SDN and NFV on servers, there will be an increase in east-west traffic at the shelf level across both virtual and physical switching. The server will become a hybrid platform able to process packets through software on Intel Architecture and use a shelf-level switch to aggregate and manage traffic workloads across multiple servers."  

Shelf-level switching in the server can provide low latency connectivity to multiple server sleds within the shelf, along with traffic aggregation through 100G Ethernet uplinks to the ToR, Price says. Besides, providing high port count switching within each server shelf increases cabling costs, he says, so Intel proposes the aggregation of all server shelf traffic through 100G uplinks to a ToR.

Intel's strategy is to increase investment in Open vSwitch community projects with a focus on a data plane development kit (DPDK) to advance both virtual switching performance on Intel Architecture, as well as enable hardware offloading to the NIC and/or physical switch when needed. DPDK is currently planned for inclusion in Open vSwitch 2.4, Price says.

As for the RackScale architecture initiative, that's focused on hyperscale data centers where administrators want to reduce total cost of ownership, and increase resource flexibility and agility, Price says.

Intel and Cisco have had discussions on the RackScale architecture, and generally on server/switch disaggregation and distributed memory, according to Dan Hanson, technical marketing director from Cisco's Computing Systems Product Group. Cisco's views on switch disaggregation are complementary with Intel's, Hanson says, but they diverge on how best to achieve it.

"The idea holds a lot of promise. A lot of people have been driving towards something like that," Hanson says. "We're just trying to figure out the best way to do it."


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