Neterion 10GB Ethernet Adapters May Cure Big Virtualization Headache: I/O Bottlenecks

New 10GB Ethernet adapters, slated to show up in servers later this year, will deliver targeted I/O bandwidth to resource-hungry applications such as SQL databases that until now haven't been practical to run on virtual machines.

Neterion has made a splash at VMworld in Cannes, France, this week, debuting a technology to solve one of virtualization's biggest practical problems—the I/O bottleneck.

I/O-intensive applications such as SQL databases and Microsoft Exchange servers demand so much of a physical server's CPU and memory that if you run the apps on a physical box with other VMs, you'll see a slowdown in overall performance. But Neterion had developed a line of 10GB Ethernet adapters for servers that provides 17 independent I/O paths right in the adapter's silicon. This means the various VMs and applications won't have to fight for one swath of I/O bandwidth as they do today. Additional I/O bandwidth can be routed to applications when needed, with IT groups able to set quality of service (QoS) levels for different applications and borrow bandwidth when necessary, Neterion President Dave Zabrowski told CIO in a preannouncement briefing earlier this month.

The new 10GB Ethernet adapters, the X3100 Series, will show up in servers in the second half of 2008, Zabrowski says. The marketing lingo will be that the server has a "virtualized NIC (network interface card)" or "VNIC," he says.

The new technology should make a big difference for IT groups that want to run resource-hungry applications on VMs, analysts say.

"It's about running multiple bandwidth-intensive applications as a virtual machine on a single physical server," says Mark Bowker, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. "Without the I/O throughput, it is difficult to justify moving [a bandwidth-hungry application] to a virtual machine, and the business will be better off leaving it running on a physical server but will not be able to see the benefits of virtualization—high availability, built-in disaster recovery, mobility."

The Neterion technology could also help IT groups improve consolidation rates and lower their VMware licensing costs, says Nik Simpson, a senior analyst with the Burton Group. "It's not just about I/O-hungry applications," Simpson says. "By virtualizing the NIC in hardware rather than through the hypervisor, you get a number of benefits."

These benefits include the ability to manage QoS; the ability to consolidate more VMs per physical host (because less processing power is wasted going back and forth between the hypervisor and the VM when processing I/O); and improved management. One example: "Each virtual NIC fully mimics the behavior and features of a physical NIC: It has its own MAC address; it can be reset without affecting other virtual NICS," Simpson says. A shared NIC should also translate to lower licensing costs, particularly for the hypervisor, Simpson says.

The I/O bottleneck issue has posed a significant roadblock to IT teams such as the one at logistics services company Transplace, where CTO Vincent Biddlecombe recently told CIO.com that he's running all of the company's significant applications on virtual machines except the Microsoft Exchange server and SQL databases—those applications are so I/O intensive. Similarly, the I/O bottleneck is one reason that many IT groups have shied away from running SAP applications, often among the most mission-critical at enterprises, on VMs.

A slew of startup vendors, such as CiRBA and Akorri, have also tackled the resource-balancing problem with new virtualization management tools in the past year. (See "Ten Virtualization Vendors to Watch".) No wonder: In CIO's recent survey on enterprise use of virtualization, 64 percent of IT leaders called balancing server workloads and maintaining application service levels their top challenge to virtualization success. IT leaders cited this as the biggest headache by far.

Neterion has also been playing a part in an emerging industry-standard, called SR-IOV 1.0 (Single-Root I/O Virtualization), that came out of a PCI-SIG workgroup. Neterion's new 10GB Ethernet adapters, which work with all the major OSes, hypervisors and server architectures, are among the first products to ship that will adhere to that standard, Zabrowski says.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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