Cisco Live! 2012: Big Things are Afoot for 10GBASE-T

The Summer IT industry event season has kicked into high gear, and this week I’m at Cisco Live! 2012 in San Diego. Networking products and technologies are, of course, one of the primary focus areas of the show, so it’s no surprise that Cisco’s announcement earlier this week included a number of new networking products. One particularly significant product is the Nexus 5596T switch, a new data center switch and the first 10GBASE-T member of the Nexus 5000 family.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts, you know that 10GBASE-T is 10 Gigabit Ethernet over twisted-pair copper cabling – the stuff that’s installed in nearly every data center today – and that it uses the familiar RJ-45 connector. 10GBASE-T has been a big topic for us here at Intel, especially with the launch of the Intel® Ethernet Controller X540 in March.

Need proof? Here’s a word cloud of my posts for the last year. Other than the common words like “Intel,” “Ethernet,” and “10GbE,” the term I used the most was “10GBASE-T.” See it there on the left?

        Wordle: A Year of Ethernet Blog Posts

But I digress. (And I drop in the occasional overused phrase.)

Kaartik Viswanath, product manager for the Nexus 5000 family, was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer some questions about the new switch and Cisco’s views on 10GBASE-T.

BY: Kaartik, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions today. Tell me about the Nexus 5596T switch and 10GBASE-T module that Cisco announced yesterday.

KV: Sure. We’re very excited about the new Nexus 5596T switch. It’s the first 10GBASE-T member of the Nexus 5000 family, and it’s coming at the perfect time, with 10GBASE-T LOM (LAN on motherboard) connections now being integrated onto mainstream server motherboards. LOM integration will help drive 10GbE adoption, and all those new 10GBASE-T ports need a high-performance, high-port-density switch to connect to. The Nexus 5596T has 32 fixed 10GBASE-T ports, and through the addition of the new 12-port 10GBASE-T Cisco Generic Expansion Module (GEM), it can support up to 68 total 10GBASE-T ports in a two-RU (rack unit) design. Plus, customers can deploy any of the existing GEMs in any of the Nexus 5596T’s three GEM slots.

The Nexus 5596T also includes 16 fixed SFP+ ports, which customers can use to connect to aggregation switches, servers, or Nexus 2000 Fabric Extenders using optical fiber or direct attach copper connections. With the Nexus 5596T switch, our customers have the flexibility to deploy both 1/10GBASE-T Ethernet on Copper and FC/FCoE/Ethernet on SFP+ ports on the same chassis.

BY: Are you hearing a lot of interest in 10GBASE-T from your customers?

KV: Yes, definitely, and I think there are a couple of major reasons for that. First, 10GBASE-T offers the easiest path for folks looking to migrate from One Gigabit Ethernet (GbE). 10GBASE-T uses the same twisted-pair copper cabling and RJ-45 connectors as existing GbE networks, and it’s backwards-compatible with all the 1000BASE-T products out there today. That means you can replace your existing 1000BASE-T switch with a Nexus 5596T and connect to both 10GBASE-T and 1000BASE-T server connections. And as you’re ready, you can upgrade servers to 10GBASE-T.

I think the other big reason 10GBASE-T is so appealing is the deployment flexibility it offers; 100 meters of reach is sufficient for the vast majority of data center deployments, whether it’s top-of-rack, middle-of-row, or end-of-row.  Plus, twisted-pair copper cabling is much more cost-effective than the fiber or direct-attach copper cabling that’s used in the majority of 10GbE deployments today.

BY: Cisco and Intel both support multiple 10GbE interfaces in their products. How do you see 10GBASE-T fitting into the mix?

KV: We’ll support whichever interfaces our customers want to use. However, there are some general guidelines that most folks seem to be following. For longer distances – over 100 meters – SFP+ optical connections are really the only choice, given their longer reach.  But fiber costs really don’t lend themselves to broad deployment. Today, most 10GbE deployments use the top of rack model, where servers connect to an in-rack switch using SFP+ direct attach copper (DAC) connections. DAC reach is only seven meters, but that’s plenty for any intra-rack connections.

10GBASE-T hits sort of a sweet spot because of its distance capabilities. It can connect switches to servers in top of rack deployments, with cables that are less expensive than SFP+ DAC, or it can be used for the longer runs where fiber is being used today – up to 100 meters, of course.

There are cases where SFP+ has some advantages, particularly for latency-sensitive applications or if the customers are sensitive to power consumption, but when it comes to deployment flexibility, costs, and ease of implementation, 10GBASE-T is well-positioned as the interface of choice for broad adoption.

BY: How about Fibre Channel over Ethernet? Does the Nexus 5596T switch support FCoE over 10GBASE-T?

KV: Great question. FCoE is a key ingredient in Cisco’s unified fabric vision, and it’s supported in our 10 Gigabit Nexus and UCS product lines. The Nexus 5596T hardware is FCoE-capable like all of our Nexus 5000 switches, and we’re working on FCoE characterization in our labs. We’ve been working closely with Intel to verify FCoE interoperability with the Intel Ethernet Controller X540.

There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the industry around whether 10GBASE-T is a suitable fabric for FCoE. Our collaboration with our ecosystem partners, including Intel, network cable vendors, and storage vendors, will help ensure there aren’t any issues before we enable the feature on the Nexus 5596T. Assuming everything goes well, we’ll also enable FCoE over 10GBASE-T in our 12-port 10GBASE-T GEM Module as well as our fabric extender line with the upcoming Nexus 2232TM-E Fabric Extender.

BY: Kaartik, a couple of quick final questions for you. Before you joined the Nexus team, you worked on the campus network side of Cisco, correct?

KV: Yes, that’s right. I was the Product Manager in the Unified Access Business Unit, managing the Fixed 10/100 business.

BY: How is the data center networking world different than the campus networking world?

KV: One thing that stands out is the faster speeds of the interconnects in data center switching products. In campus networks, the vast majority of connections are at Gigabit or Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) speeds. Our Nexus product line, by contrast, has switches with 96 10 Gigabit ports and 40 Gigabit and 100 Gigabit uplinks. So the speed of individual links is greater, but a campus network typically connects many more machines than a data center network, as there are more client PCs than there are servers.

Another big difference is the technologies that are supported in each class of product. There’s certainly some overlap, but technologies like Fibre Channel over Ethernet, Data Center Bridging, I/O virtualization – those are mostly confined to the data center world. Similarly, technologies like Power over Ethernet Plus and Universal Power over Ethernet today are more prevalent in campus access type of deployments and are not so common in the data center world.

BY: Thanks for taking the time to chat today, Kaartik. We’re looking forward to continuing our work with Cisco.

KV: No problem. I’m looking forward to it, too.

We at Intel have been talking about 10GBASE-T for a long time now, and it’s great to see the ecosystem continuing to grow with new products like the Nexus 5596T switch. I’d like to thank Kaartik for taking the time to answer these questions for us.

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