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HP ProCurve unveils data center network strategy

Shamus McGillicuddy
ProCurve announced Monday its first series of purpose-built data center switches, along with new data center management software.

The announcement signals that HP intends to use its strong market presence in servers, storage, management software and professional services to pry open Cisco Systems' stranglehold

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on the data center networking market.

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Core network switch rounds out ProCurve's architecture

ProCurve has introduced the 6600 switch series, built to serve as top-of-rack switches in data centers. The 6600 comes in five flavors, with two 24-port 1 GbE models, two 48-port 1 GbE models, and one 24-port 10 GbE model. The switches are optimized for use in the data center, with front-to-back airflow allowing them to fit within the hot aisle/cold aisle design of modern data centers. They also have a redundant power supply packed into a 1U form factor.

"Previous to this announcement, [ProCurve] really didn't have data center-specific products," said Jon Oltsik, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "You could use their switches as top-of-rack switches or their chassis-based switch as an aggregation hub, but these new switches are designed for data center connectivity. Between that and the management software, they're really looking at piggy-backing onto HP's overall strength as a data center company."

"We're no strangers to the data center, but having very purpose-built solutions will open up doors to customers that weren't open to us before, those customers who are truly building out optimized data center environments and are concerned about power efficiency, cooling separation and built-in redundant power," said F. Matthew Zanner, ProCurve's worldwide director of data center solutions.

Matt Davy, chief network architect at Indiana University, has been beta testing four 6600 switches since November. He is considering using them at the distribution layer. He is also considering the 6600s as top-of-rack servers in a new 87,000-square-foot data center that the school is building. In the past, Davy has used ProCurve 5400 chassis switches as end-of-rack units with no top-of-rack switch. Times have changed, and in his new data center, he plans to take a different approach.

"The last time we designed a network for a data center was around the 2004-2005 timeframe, and a lot has changed since then," Davy said. "As we started seeing servers moving to 10 gigabit, and as we started to look at densities of one gigabit on a lot of our racks with virtualization really taking off, we decided top-of-rack made a lot more sense than end-of-row. As what we were looking at made sense in terms of densities of one gigabit and future moves to 10 gigabit, we didn't think the expenditure on copper cabling from end-of-row into the tops of racks made much sense."

ProCurve launches platform for running third-party apps on its switches

Glen Van Lehr, senior network engineer at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) beta-tested the ProCurve ONE platform last fall, placing a z1 Module near the network core. He ran a version of an sFlow monitoring product from InMon Corp. CCSF already uses InMon as its network management platform, so he ran the beta module in parallel to his the system on his production network to see how it would perform.

"It was able to handle everything our production network could handle with a little bit less CPU utilization," Van Lehr said.

He said it would be useful to run applications that are integral to network management and security, so long as the applications don't require a large RAID database. He said running the module from within a switch can save on power consumption and space in the data center.

"It provides a lot of services out at the edge," he said.

He is still looking at a few vendors for the top of the rack, and Cisco's Nexus 5000 switches remain another option for him. However, Davy said the purpose-built nature of the ProCurve 6600 switch makes it a strong option for his new data center.

The front-to-back airflow design of the 6600 is something that is missing from the 5400 switches in his current data centers, he said.

"In some cases, to meet density requirements we would have 5400 switches in racks next to each other, and then with side-to-side [airflow] you have issues with the outlet of one going into the inlet of another," Davy said. "So that limited how we could deploy those switches."

Having the redundant power supplies packed into a 1U form factor is also something Davy needs in a top-of-rack switch.

"The groups that manage servers and applications in the data center do not like to give up rack units to switching," he said. "So the 1U form factor is very critical for us to reduce the network footprint within those racks as we move to a top-of-rack solution."

Abner Germanow, director of IDC's enterprise network services, said the 6600 switch gives ProCurve a very good server access switch story, which is the first step toward integrating ProCurve with HP's overall data center technology strategy driven by the company's Technology Services Group (TSG).

Germanow said that enterprises can use (and have used) other ProCurve switches, such as the 8200 chassis, in the data center -- but in very large enterprise data centers with strict designs for cooling, power management and rack utilization, most companies would typically go with a competitor like Cisco, Force10 or Foundry.

ProCurve, like other vendors, is responding to the changing needs of data center networks. "For a long time in many data centers, the switch that people used in top-of-rack was basically the same switch they used in the top of the wiring closet," Germanow said. "It wasn't until recently that people started to purpose-build top-of-rack switches."

Germanow said he wouldn't be surprised to see ProCurve introduce more data center switches over the next couple of years, as its experience with the 6600 switches helps it better grasp the needs of enterprise data center customers.

ProCurve also announced HP ProCurve Data Center Connection Manager. The software is meant to be used by both network administrators and server administrators to manage the provisioning of network connections for both physical and virtual servers.

"[Data Center Connection Manager] also provides a great deal of visibility into a virtualized environment," Zanner said. "It can be a go-to source for real-time information on what network connection is matched at any given time to what virtual machine for troubleshooting and reporting purposes."

"HP put a fair amount of thought into this and have a number of products looking at automating, provisioning and managing systems within the data center market," Germanow said. "[Data Center Connection Manager is] not as rich as, say, similar functionality you can get out of Opsware, but it's probably a very compelling solution -- one of the basic problems you face when you start virutalizing servers -- how you move them around and how you manage all network configuration that goes with every virtual server, regardless of where it is."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor


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