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Can Data Centers Run at the Speed of Now?

Will the new high-speed, high-port density switching fabrics perform at the level required to deliver high-bandwidth, low latency content?

By Jurrie van den Breekel

Not long ago we were debating whether there was a market for 40G and 100G Ethernet. Now we can't get it fast enough.

At the Technology Exploration Forum in Santa Clara, CA in September, 2009, Facebook engineer Donn Lee said that the Facebook network would require a 64 Tbps data center aggregation layer by the end of 2010. Unfortunately, the technology didn’t grant him his wish and there are many other high-demand websites and data centers with the same problem.

More than two years later high-port density, high-speed data center solutions are finally arriving on the scene, but questions remain about how well such systems will perform. Can a data center switching fabric really support thousands of 10G ports aggregating into hundreds of 40G  or 100G Ethernet uplink ports without congestion, packet loss or latency problems? And can it do this even for applications demanding low latency, such as high-frequency trading, where a millisecond can mean a million dollars earned or lost?

In addition, since nobody knows what traffic patterns the future killer app will demand, it’s going to need the highest any-to-any port connectivity in a data center fabric supporting the cloud. That means supporting full-mesh traffic patterns to avoid built-in obsolescence.

Consider the scale of the problem: 6,144 x 10G ports switching and/or routing Layer 2/Layer 3 traffic in a full-mesh traffic pattern. That's almost forty million connections for a switch fabric to keep track of and for which to make switching/routing decisions at dozens of terabits per second.

Data center operations managers attempting to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for content and performance have a daunting task—to verify that a system can not only meet the claims of vendors bringing these massive systems to market, but can deliver the quality of experience that the end users expect.

In the coming months, as more of these high-speed switch fabrics come to market, we will see whether they can deliver data center performance at the speed of now. Expect the systems that prove they can support thousands of ports with realistic full-mesh, line-rate, low-latency traffic in standards-based benchmarking tests to become the market leaders in building twenty-first century data centers.

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