SAN JOSE, Calif. Chip makers including NetXen and ServerEngines are gearing up a new wave of 10Gbit/second Ethernet silicon supporting the latest PCI Express links and virtualization standards. The devices could help boost the uptake of 10 Gbit products and take servers another step down the road to converged data center networks.
Ultimately server makers hope to be able to deliver a variety of networking, storage and clustering features on Ethernet for systems that can host multiple sessions at once thanks to virtualization technology. But that goal is probably still more than a year away, in part because it is requiring Herculean software development efforts.
"So far no one has gotten all the pieces of the puzzle together yet," said Bob Wheeler, senior analyst at The Linley Group (Mountain View, Calif.).
For example, no chip today delivers both full support for virtualization and TCP offload engines (TOEs), used to reduce overhead on host CPUs, Wheeler said. As a crop of chips approach that goal this year, the industry will require support for yet another emerging standard to run Fibre Channel storage traffic over Ethernet.
"I don't know if we will get to one chip with everything in it, but to flesh out this converged fabric concept you need to get as much capability out there as possible, and we are still early in this effort," said Michael Krause, an interconnect specialist in the PC server group at Hewlett-Packard. "It's a longer period of time before you get all this in the chips in a way that's cost and power efficient," he said.
ServerEngines (Sunnyvale, Calif.) hopes to sample in April a new version of its 10G Ethernet chip announced in July. It will step from 2.5 to 5 GHz PCI Express links and support the single-root I/O virtualization (SR-IOV) spec recently released by the PCI Special Interest Group to let multiple jobs share a network link.
A follow on PCI Express standard called multi-root IOV should be completed by April. It enables jobs from more than one server to share I/O resources.
ServerEngine's dual-ported chip's total throughput will rise from about 13 Gbits/s to its full rated speeds closer to 20 Gbits/s thanks to the 5 GHz Express links. "People are dead if they don't have that," said Kim Brown, vice president of business development for the startup.
The SR-IOV spec is a standard for any virtualization software to handle sharing I/O over any network type. It will replace proprietary methods developed by server makers such as HP and IBM as well as a new network queuing technique VMWare released in its ESX version 3.5 software late last year. However full chip and software support for IOV is not expected until at least the end of the year.
Analyst Wheeler said the VMWare software could be an early driver for 10G Ethernet deployments. That's because the queuing technique helps 10G devices achieve something closer to their full throughput when running the virtualization software OEMs and end users want to get the most bang for the buck from servers.
"Virtualization has the potential to drive 10G Ethernet adoption, but until now the products haven't had good enough performance," Wheeler said. With ESX 3.5, "now the technology becomes attractive for high-end servers," he added.
ServerEngines has drivers for the VMWare software now in certification. It baked into its current 130nm chip support for 32 separate protected domains to handle virtualization. Its next-generation 90nm part increases that to 64 domains.
NetXen (Santa Clara, Calif.) expects to wait until this fall to roll out its chip supporting 5 GHz Express. That's when Intel is expected to debut its first server chips sets supporting the link as part if its 45nm Nehalem family of processors.
The company claims it gets one-way throughput of about 9 Gbits/s per 10G port under the latest VMWare software, although CPU utilization levels have gone up. The drain on host processors will ease when support for the SR-IOV standard kicks in toward the end of the year, said NetXen president David Pulling.