Virtually Speaking: The I/O Differentiator

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Nov 20, 2007


Amy Newman
IBM and HP are taking the blade battle to the virtual realm. Will their approaches to I/O virtualization be the difference between the competing products?

Server blades and virtual machines have enjoyed a peanut butter and jelly relationship for much of their short lives. Their architecture makes them well-suited to be sliced further into virtual machines and managed, especially when they are being considered for consolidation purposes.

Last week, HP brought the two closer together with the release of Virtual Connect Enterprise Manager, which is software designed to speed up the tedious tasks of adding, moving and replacing blade servers in the data center via its I/O virtualization capabilities.

Virtual Connect Enterprise Manager is an expansion of HP's Virtual Connect technology. It pre-assigns network and storage connections on an individual blade server and can manage up to 1,600 of them. HP said the software eliminates several process steps, reduces administration time and limits configuration conflicts.

Contention between IBM and HP is strong in the blades market, so it wasn't surprising that IBM announced some I/O virtualization technology of its own this week.

On Monday, Big Blue unveiled BladeCenter Open Fabric Manager, an offering that can provide I/O virtualization across 100 BladeCenter chassis from a single console. It, too, automates the process of assigning I/O addresses.

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I/O virtualization is a concept getting increased attention as of late. With multiple virtual machines running on a single box, contention can arise within the I/O stream. I/O virtualization removes the bottleneck by routing traffic. As virtualization gains a more solid foothold in the enterprises, concern over its impact on I/O will only grow. This is especially in the blade arena, where the capability to move workloads and data around the chassis is paramount.

Ostensibly, the IBM and HP products accomplish the same end — both make it easier to move workloads from one blade to another.

They even share several of the same features: the capability to replace failed server in same server bay, to move server to another bay as long as same LAN and SAN connections already exist there, and to assign and move MAC addresses and World Wide Names.

It's the approach that differs slightly. While HP's solution is more of a soup-to-nuts offering, and the OEM claims it offers capabilities that IBM does not (e.g., a reduction in the number of cables that can be managed without the need to add switches), IBM has chosen an open-ended approach. The switch choice has been left entirely up to you.

Because BladeCenter Open Fabric supports third-party management solutions, customers can use the switch technology already in place. IBM is selling BladeCenter Open Fabric Manager's support for a range of Ethernet and Fibre Channel technologies from vendors that include Blade Network Technologies, Brocade, Cisco, Emulex, NetXen and QLogic.

HP was quick to counter this selling point by noting that Virtual Connect can also attach to any industry standard Ethernet or NPIV-enabled Fibre Channel switch. No additional details were provided, however.

One downside of IBM's openness and choice is that it introduces a level of complexity not present in the more holistic, yet proprietary, HP solution.

Price-wise the two solutions aren't far apart. Virtual Connect starts at about $4,500, while BladeCenter Open Fabric Manager is $1,499 and IBM BladeCenter Open Fabric Manager — Advanced Upgrade is $1,999.

Virtual Connect is available for purchase now. The IBM products are scheduled to ship in December.

For price-guided enterprises, Big Blue may have the advantage. Now through the end of the year, U.S. organization can save $500 to $1,000 per chassis over list price. IBM is also claiming an 80 percent savings over the competition.

For enterprises that already have a blade infrastructure in place, the choice of whether to go with BladeCenter Open Fabric Manager or HP Virtual Connect has likely already been made by default. For those just starting out with blades, both vendors are no doubt hoping the I/O management choice will make the purchase less of a commodity choice.

Amy Newman is the managing editor of ServerWatch. She has been covering virtualization since 2001.

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