Home > Articles > Cisco Network Technology > General Networking > I/O Consolidation in the Data Center

I/O Consolidation in the Data Center

  • Sample Chapter is provided courtesy of Cisco Press.
  • Date: Sep 23, 2009.

Chapter Description

This chapter explains the benefits and challenges of designing physical infrastructure to simultaneously carry multiple types of traffic.

Additional Requirements

Buffering Requirements

Buffering is a complex topic, related to propagation delays, higher level protocols, congestion control schemes, and so on. For the purpose of this discussion, it is possible to divide the networks into two classes: lossless networks and lossy networks.

This classification does not consider losses due to transmission errors that, in a controlled environment with limited distances like the Data Center, are rare in comparison to losses due to congestion.

Fibre Channel and Infiniband are examples of lossless networks (i.e., they have a link level signaling mechanism to keep track of buffer availability at the other end of the link). This mechanism allows the sender to send a frame only if a buffer is available in the receiver, and therefore the receiver never needs to drop frames. Although this seems attractive at a first glance, a word of caution is in order: Lossless networks require to be engineered in simple and limited topologies. In fact, congestion at a switch can propagate upstream throughout the network, ultimately affecting flows that are not responsible for the congestion. If circular dependencies exist, the network may experience severe deadlock and/or livelock conditions that can significantly reduce the performance of the network or destroy its functionality. These two phenomena are well known in literature and easy to reproduce in real networks. This should not discourage the potential user, since Data Center networks have simple and well-defined topologies.

Historically Ethernet has been a lossy network, since Ethernet switches do not use any mechanism to signal to the sender that they are out of buffers. A few years ago, IEEE 802.3 added a PAUSE mechanism to Ethernet. This mechanism can be used to stop the sender for a period of time, but pragmatically this feature has not been successfully deployed. Today it is common practice to drop frames when an Ethernet switch is congested. Several clever ways of dropping frames and managing queues have been proposed under the general umbrella of Active Queue Management (AQM), but they do not eliminate frame drops and require large buffers to work effectively. The most used AQM scheme is probably Random Early Detection (RED).

Avoiding frame drops is mandatory for carrying native storage traffic over Ethernet, since storage traffic does not tolerate frame drops. SCSI was designed with the assumption of running over a reliable transport in which failures are so rare that it is acceptable to recover slowly from them.

Fibre Channel is the primary protocol used to carry storage traffic, and it avoids frame drops through a link flow control mechanism based on credits called buffer-to-buffer flow control (also known as buffer-to-buffer credit or B2B credit). iSCSI is an alternative to Fibre Channel that solves the same problem by requiring TCP to recover from frame drops; however iSCSI has not been widely deployed in the Data Center.

In general, it is possible to say that lossless networks require fewer buffers in the switches than lossy networks and that these buffers may be accommodated on-chip (cheaper and faster), although large buffers require off-chip memory (expensive and slower).

Both behaviors have advantages and disadvantages. Ethernet needs to be extended to support the capability to partition the physical link into multiple logical links (by extending the IEEE 802.1Q Priority concept) and to allow lossless/lossy behavior on a per Priority basis.

Finally, it should be noted that when buffers are used they increase latency (see page 10).

Layer 2 Only

A significant part of the cost of a 10GE inter-switch port is related to functionalities above Layer 2, namely IPv4/IPv6 routing, multicast forwarding, various tunneling protocols, Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS), Access Control Lists (ACLs), and deep packet inspection (Layer 4 and above). These features require external components like RAMs, CAMs, or TCAMs that significantly increase the port cost.

Virtualization, Cluster, and HPC often require extremely good Layer 2 connectivity. Virtual Machines are typically moved inside the same IP subnet (Layer 2 domain), often using a Layer 2 mechanism like gratuitous ARP. Cluster members exchange large volumes of data among themselves and often use protocols that are not IP-based for membership, ping, keep-alive, and so on.

A 10GE solution that is wire-speed, low-latency, and completely Ethernet compliant is therefore a good match for the Data Center, even if it does not scale outside the Data Center itself. Layer 2 domains of 64,000 to 256,000 members are able to satisfy the Data Center requirement for the next few years.

To support multiple independent traffic types on the same network, it is crucial to maintain the concept of Virtual LANs and to expand the concept of Priorities (see page 20).

Switch Architecture

This section deals with the historical debate of store-and-forward versus cut-through switching. Many readers may correctly complain of having heard this debate repeatedly, with some of the players switching sides over the course of the years, and they are right!

When the speed of Ethernet was low (e.g., 10 or 100 Mbit/s), this debate was easy to win for the store-and-forward camp, since the serialization delay was the dominating one. Today, with 10GE available and 40GE and 100GE in our close future, the serialization delay is low enough to justify looking at this topic again. For example, a 1-KB frame requires approximately 1 microsecond to be serialized at the speed of 10 Gbit/s.

Today many Ethernet switches are designed with a store-and-forward architecture, since this is a simpler design. Store-and-forward adds several serialization delays inside the switch and therefore the overall latency is negatively impacted [10].

Cut-through switches have a lower latency at the cost of a more complex design, required to save the intermediate store-and-forward. This is possible to achieve on fixed configuration switches like the Nexus 5000, but much more problematic on modular switches with a high port count like the Nexus 7000.

In fixed configuration switches a single speed (for example 10 Gbit/s) is used in the design of all the components, a limit to the number of ports is selected (typically less than 128), and these simplified assumptions make cut-through possible.

In modular switches, backplane switching fabrics are multiple (also to improve high availability, modularity, and serviceability) and run dedicated links toward the linecards at a speed as high as possible. Modular switches may have thousands of ports because they may have a high number of linecards and a high number of ports per linecard. The linecards are heterogeneous (1GE, 10GE, 40GE, etc.), and the speed of the front panel ports is lower than the speed of the backplane (fabric) ports. Therefore, a store and forward between the ingress linecard and the fabric and a second one between the fabric and the egress linecard are almost impossible to avoid.

Cut-through switching is not possible if there are frames already queued for a given destination and if the speed of the egress link is higher than the speed of the ingress link (data underrun). Cut-through is typically not performed for multicast/broadcast frames.

Finally, cut-through switches cannot discard corrupted frames, since when they detect that a frame is currupted, by examining the Frame Control Sequence (FCS), they have already started transmitting that frame.

Low Latency

The latency parameter that cluster users care about is the latency incurred in transferring a buffer from the user memory space of one computer to the user memory space of another computer. The main factors that contribute to the latency are

  1. The time elapsed between the moment in which the application posts the data and the moment in which the first bit starts to flow on the wire. This is determined by the zero-copy mechanism and by the capability of the NIC to access the data directly in host memory, even if this is scattered in physical memory. To keep this time low most NICs today use DMA scatter/gather operations to efficiently move frames between the memory and the NIC. This in turn is influenced by the type of protocol offload used (i.e., stateless versus TOE [ TCP Offload Engine]).
  2. Serialization delay: This depends only on the link speed. For example, at 10 Gbit/s the serialization of one Kbyte requires 0.8 microseconds.
  3. Propagation delay: This is similar in copper and fiber; it is typically 2/3 of the speed of light and can be rounded to 200 meters/microsecond one way or to 100 meters/microsecond round-trip delay. Some people prefer to express it as 5 nanoseconds/meter, and this is correct as well. In published latency data, the propagation delay is always assumed to be zero. The size of Data Center networks must be limited to a few hundreds meters to keep low this delay, otherwise it becomes dominant and low latency cannot be achieved.
  4. Switch latency varies in the presence or absence of congestion. Under congestion the switch latency is mainly due to the buffering occurring inside the switch and low latency cannot be achieved. In a noncongested situation the latency depends mainly on the switch architecture, as explained on page 9.
  5. Same as in point 1, but on the receiving side.

Native Support for Storage Traffic

The term native support for storage traffic indicates the capability of a network to act as a transport for the SCSI protocol. Figure 1-6 illustrates possible alternative SCSI transports.

Figure 1-6

Figure 1-6 SCSI Transports

SCSI was designed assuming the underlying physical layer was a short parallel cable, internal to the computer, and therefore extremely reliable. Based on this assumption, SCSI is not efficient in recovering from transmission errors. A frame loss may cause SCSI to time-out and recover in up to one minute.

For this reason, when the need arose to move the storage out of the servers in the storage arrays, the Fibre Channel protocol was chosen as a transport for SCSI. Fibre Channel, through its buffer-to-buffer (B2B) credit-based flow control scheme, guarantees the same frame delivery reliability of the SCSI parallel bus and therefore is a good match for SCSI.

Ethernet does not have a credit-based flow control scheme, but it does have a PAUSE mechanism. A proper implementation of the PAUSE mechanism achieves results identical to a credit-based flow control scheme, in a distance-limited environment like the Data Center.

To support I/O consolidation (i.e., to avoid interference between different classes of traffic) PAUSE needs to be extended per Priority (see page 20).

RDMA Support

Cluster applications require two message types:

  • Short synchronization messages among cluster nodes with minimum latency.
  • Large messages to transfer buffers from one node to another without CPU intervention. This is also referred to as Remote Direct Memory Access (RDMA).

In the latter case the buffer resides in the user memory (rather than in the kernel) of a process. The buffer must be transferred to the user memory of another process. User memory is virtual memory, and it is therefore scattered in physical memory.

The RDMA operation must happen without CPU intervention, and therefore the NIC must be able to accept a command to transfer a user buffer, gather it from physical memory, implement a reliable transport protocol, and transfer it to the other NIC. The receiving NIC must verify the integrity of the data, signal the successful transfer or the presence of errors, and scatter the data in the destination host physical memory without CPU intervention.

RDMA requires in-order reliable delivery of its messages by the underlying transport.

In the IP world, there is no assumption on the reliability of the underlying network. iWARP (Internet Wide Area RDMA Protocol) is an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) update of the RDMA Consortium's RDMA over TCP standard. iWARP is layered above TCP, which guarantees in-order delivery. Packets dropped by the underlying network are recovered by TCP through retransmission.

Over networks with limited scope, such as Data Center networks, in-order frame delivery can be achieved without using a heavy protocol such as TCP. As an example, in-order frame delivery is successfully achieved by Fibre Channel fabrics and Ethernet networks.

As discussed in Chapter 2, Ethernet can be extended to become lossless. In Lossless Ethernet dropping happens only because of catastrophic events, like transmission errors or topology reconfigurations. The RDMA protocol may therefore be designed with the assumption that frames are normally delivered in order without any frame being lost. Protocols like LLC2, HDLC, LAPB, and so on work well if the frames are delivered in order and if the probability of frame drop is low.

Lossless Ethernet can also be integrated with a congestion control mechanism at Layer 2.

Another important requirement for RDMA is the support of standard APIs. Among the many proposed, RDS, IB verbs, SDP, and MPI seem the most interesting. RDS is used in the database community and MPI is widely adopted in the HPC market.

Open Fabrics Alliance (OFED) is currently developing a unified, open-source software stack for the major RDMA fabrics.

Cisco Press Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Cisco Press and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Cisco Press products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@ciscopress.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Cisco Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.ciscopress.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020