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Dell Active Fabric: Converged fabric that's easy to deploy and manage

With Active Fabric, Dell delivers a converged fabric for data centers where server and storage admins call the shots.

Dell introduced Active Fabric, a converged fabric architecture and management system designed to enable storage and systems administrators to install and manage data center networks without help from network engineers. In addition to Active Fabric, Dell unveiled the S5000, a modular, top-of-rack local-area network and storage-area network switch.

Active Fabric is based on the flat, distributed core networks Dell customers can build with the Z9000 switch, a 2 rack-unit 2.5 Tbps switch introduced by Dell's acquisition of Force10 Networks two years ago. Customers can create leaf-spin architectures and other flat data center network topologies with a cluster of Z9000s using Dell's Virtual Link Trunking (VLT) feature, a version of multi-link aggregation.

The new S5000 is a top-of-rack 10/40 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) switch that supports Ethernet, Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet and multiple other storage protocols, enabling the new converged Dell Active Fabric. It's a modular switch that allows customers to add ports over time, a so-called pay-as-you-grow option. The S5000's maximum port density with all modules populated is 64x10 GbE or 48x10 GbE with 48 Ethernet/Fibre Channel ports. It also has 4x40 GbE uplink ports. With support for Ethernet and storage protocols, the S5000 is engineered to enable a true converged fabric at the top of the rack or end of the row in data centers.

Dell paired Active Fabric with Active Fabric Manager (AFM), an automated management system for designing, provisioning, validating and configuring a data center network. Dell said it designed the system to allow systems and storage administrators to build and manage networks on their own without help from network engineers. Server and storage pros can administer the network through AFM with an intuitive GUI rather than traditional command-line interface (CLI).

"It will even print out a wiring diagram so the administrator can just connect ports and do the set-up and provisioning before setting up a single test packet," said Arpit Joshipura, vice president of product management and marketing at Dell Networking. "We're trying to make sure server and storage organizations get comfortable with networking and it's not just left to the Cisco CCIE engineers that introduce complexity."

Dell's goal is to enable server and storage teams to build a converged fabric on their own for applications that generate simpler workloads, and thus require a simpler fabric, Joshipura said.

"Then there are traditional networking workloads like a Hadoop cluster where you need the networking experts," he said. "We're not trying to take away [the need for] Cisco CLI. There is a bifurcation happening in the industry from a manageability perspective. There will be customers where networking guys win the organizational battle and we have CLI products for that. And then there will be organizational customers whether either server administrators or a converged server and storage administrator combination will take over design. In that scenario you need to be a network enabler and not a network blocker."

While Active Fabric Manager will enable simpler network engineering for non-networking pros, network engineers will still be able to bring their traditional skills into play with the Active Fabric portfolio, particularly for complex network architectures.

"We still have CLI, so network administrators can go into [Active Fabric switchers] with their scripts and tools," Joshipura said.

Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, said Dell's strategy reflects the vendor's attempt to take advantage of the shifting politics inside data centers in order to sell more networking gear. As enterprises shift toward software-defined data centers, the people buying networking gear in some IT organizations will change, he said.

"The value of IT is shifting," he said. "While networking doesn't and can't go away, the power equation and politics in the data center do shift. I think many networking pros are cognizant of this and are looking at their skillsets. Having a CCIE was good, and now I need to pick up new skills."

Dell has a firm foothold in data centers through its server, storage and software businesses, so selling networks that its established customers in those disciplines can manage makes sense, Casemore said.

"What they're trying to do is not fight the networking battle on [other] networking vendors' terms," Casemore said. "They want to shift that battle to a place where they have a chance of winning."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director.

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