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January 10, 2012

Brocade Sees Quick Ramp-Up of 100 GbE in Academia and Research

Michael Feldman

Pent-up demand for network bandwidth at both the core and edge of the datacenter is good news for suppliers of 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) routers. And although Brocade was not the first vendor to market with such gear, it has quickly become one of the largest providers of 100 GbE ports, a lot of which are ending up in science and research networks. Organizations such as CERN, Indiana University and the Howard Hughes Medical Center are already employing the technology to power performance-demanding applications.

Although Brocade announced its non-blocking 100 Gigabit Ethernet MLXe routers more than a year ago, the blades have only been shipping since August 2011. In those six months though, the company has delivered 100 of the dual-port blades for a total of 200 100 GbE ports. That might not seem like much, but considering the total number of such ports is only around 1,000, worldwide, Brocade has managed to capture a good chunk of that market, which until recently was dominated by Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, and Juniper Networks.

The MLXe supports Layer 2 switching and Layer 3 routing functions and can function at both the network edge and the core. The system comes in four chassis sizes of 4, 8, 16, and 32 slots. It also supports multi-terabit-per-second trunks by aggregating multiple 100 GbE ports in a LAG (Link Aggregation Group). With its two-port blade design (and up to 16 blades per chassis), Brocade claims it is two to four times as dense as its competition.

The 100 GbE module is based powered by custom-built 100 Gbps input and output packet processing ASICs and a 100 Gbps traffic manager ASIC. The use of Brocade processors and a 100 Gbps data path through the router enable each port to run at full 100 Gigabit wire speed.

Although the 100 GbE standard was ratified fairly recently (in 2010), analysts are expecting a rapid adoption of the technology. Dell’Oro Group, for example, expects 100 Gigabit port shipments to grow more than 200 percent per year from 2010 through 2015. Infonetics Research is of the same mind, estimating 100 GbE port sales to have a compounded annual growth rate of 214 percent over that same period.

Based on demand Brocade is seeing for its MLXe routers, the company is expecting a quick ramp-up of the technology, according to Daniel Williams, director of product marketing, Service Provider and Application Delivery Products. But even he wasn’t really expecting the technology to take hold so quickly. “To be honest, I’ve been surprised at how much demand there’s been,” he told HPCwire.

One of Brocade’s premier 100 GbE customers is CERN, who deployed 10 GbE-equipped MLXe routers in 2010 to help keep up with the enormous quantities of research data coursing through the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) computing grid. Starting in November 2011, Brocade starting delivering their 100 GbE blades to CERN.

The early adoption of 100 GbE at CERN is understandable. The demand for network bandwidth there is nearly insatiable, due in large part to the enormous volumes of data generated by their LHC particle physics experiments — data which now exceeds 15 petabytes per year. CERN will almost certainly be expanding its 100 GbE infrastructure in the coming years to handle even greater quantities of data. As such, CERN represents one of Brocade’s most significant deployments of its 100 GbE gear, although the organization is coy about the exact number of ports they’ve deployed.

Currently, the largest installation of Brocade 100 GbE blades is at the Janelia Farm Research Campus, the research facility for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) , where 56 ports are installed. Here, two MLXe 32-port routers are being used at the network core, primarily to provide 10 Gigabit pipes to hundreds of desktop computers being used to analyze the neuroscience and imaging data from researchers’ experiments. The routers at HHMI also contain GigE ports that feed traditional office applications like email. Overall, the idea was to simplify the facility’s network infrastructure by reducing the number of routers and fiber runs, while delivering lots of bandwidth to the biomedical researchers.

The 100 GbE-equipped MLXe routers installed at Indiana University are being used a little differently, in this case, at the network edge to connect to Internet2’s 100 GbE backbone. The setup was demonstrated last November at SC11 as part of the school’s Data Superconductor, which is a Lustre-based, high-performance file system designed to operate over a wide area network. The demo at SC11 set a world record by transferring 186 gigabits per second between Indianapolis and Seattle (approximately 2300 miles), with each end of the link connected to a Brocade 100 GbE port.

Outside of the research realm, other early 100 GbE adopters include service providers, especially the internet exchange customers, which have to deal with extremely large data flows. Secondarily, the larger transit providers that hook into those exchanges and have a particular need for bandwidth — think Netflix traffic — are also hopping onto 100 GbE technology. Brocade is also beginning to see 100 GbE demand from metro providers.

In addition, the MLXe is equipped with special software for data streaming to support what is known as “telemetry applications.” Basically the idea is to aggregate, filter and replicate network traffic in real-time and send it off to servers that are doing ‘big data” analytics. Brocade has teamed with IBM and its InfoSphere platform to deliver real-time streaming and analytics of large unstructured data sets, such as video or financial data. “The ability to do that with 100 Gig links or even larger trunks is extremely compelling for many of our customers,” notes Williams.

In almost all cases, customers adopting 100 GbE routing are upgrading those networks from 10 GbE. That’s a big jump in bandwidth, and not one necessarily foreseen just a few years ago. A lot of industry watchers thought that 40 Gigabit Ethernet would be the next de facto standard for core and edge routers, but a lot of users seem to want to move directly to 100 GbE. “What we’re seeing in the research environment and even with our enterprise customers, is that 40 Gig is really becoming a niche technology that is primarily used in datacenters for aggregation coming from servers,” says Williams.