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I/O Virtualization: The Battle for the Datacenter OS and What This Means to Security

One of the very profound impacts virtualization will have on security is the resultant collateral damage caused by what I call the "battle for the datacenter OS" framed by vendors who would ordinarily not be thought of as "OS vendors." 

I call the main players in this space the "Three Kings:" Cisco, VMware and EMC.
Microsoft is in there also, but that’s a topic for another post as I bifurcate operating system vendors in the classical sense from datacenter infrastructure platforms.  Google deserves a nod, too.

The "Datacenter OS" I am speaking of is the abstracted amalgam of virtualization and converged networking/storage that delivers the connected and pooled resource equivalent of the utility power grid.   Nick Carr reflects in his book "The Big Switch":

A hundred years ago, companies stopped producing their own power with steam engines and generators and plugged into the newly built electric grid.”

The "datacenter" and its underlying "operating system," in whatever abstracted form they will manifest themselves, will become this service layer delivery "grid" to which all things will connect; services will be merely combinations of resources and capabilities which are provisioned dynamically.

We see this starting to take form with the innovation driven by virtualization, the driving forces of convergence, the re-emergence of grid computing, the architectures afforded by mash-ups and the movements and investments of the Three Kings in all of these areas.

It’s pretty clear that that these three vendors are actively responsible for shaping the future of computing as we know it.  However, It’s not at all clear to me how much of the strategic overlap between them is accidental or planned, but they’re all approaching the definition of how our virtualized computing experience will unfold in very similar ways, albeit from slightly different perspectives.

One of the really interesting examples of this is how virtualization and convergence are colliding to produce the new model of the datacenter which blurs the lines between computing, networking and storage.

Specifically, the industry — as driven by customers — is trending toward the following:

  • Upgrading from servers to blades
  • Moving from hosts and switches to clusters and fabrics
  • Evolving from hardware/software affinity to grid/utility computing
  • Transitioning from infrastructure to service layers in “the cloud”

The topic of this post is really about the second bullet, moving from the notion of the classical hosts/servers plugging into separate network and storage switches to instead clusters of resources connecting to fabric(s) such that what we end up with are pools of resources to be provisioned, allocated and dispatched where, when and how needed. 

This is where I/O virtualization enters the picture.  I/O virtualization at the macro level of the datacenter describes the technology which enables the transition from the discrete and directly-connected model of storage versus networking to a converged virtualized model wherein network and storage resources are aggregated into a single connection to the "fabric."

Instead of having separate Ethernet, fiber channel and Infiniband connections, you’d have a single pipe connected to a "virtual connectivity switch" that provides on-demand, dynamic and virtualized allocation of resources to anything connected to the fabric.  The notion of physical affinity from the server/host’s perspective goes away.

IovirtAndy Dornan from Information Week just did a nice write-up titled "Cisco pitches virtual switches for next-gen data centers." 

It’s obviously focused on Cisco’s Nexus 7000 Series switch, but also gives some coverage of Brocade’s DCX Backbone, Xsigo’s Director and 3Leaf’s v-8000 products.

Check out what Andy had to say about Cisco’s strategy:

Cisco’s vision is one in which big companies off-load an increasing
number of server tasks to network switches, with servers ultimately
becoming little more than virtual machines inside a switch.*

The Nexus
doesn’t deliver that, but it makes a start, aiming to virtualize the
network interface cards, host bus adapters, and cables that connect
servers to networks and remote storage. At present, those require
dedicated local area networks and storage area networks, with each
using a separate network interface card and host bus adapter for every
virtual server. The Nexus aims to consolidate them all into one (or
two, for redundancy), with virtual servers connecting through virtual

This stuff isn’t vaporware anymore.  These products are real…from numerous entities.  These companies — and especially Cisco — are on a mission to re-write the datacenter blueprint and security along with it.  VMware’s leading the virtualization charge and Cisco’s investing for the long run.  When you look at their investment in VMware, the I/O virtualization play and what they’re doing with vFrame, it’s impressive — and scary at the same time.

Them’s a lot of eggs in one basket, and it’s perfectly clear that there is a huge sucking sound coming from the traditional security realm as we look out over the horizon.  How do you apply a static security sensibility grounded in the approaches of 20 years ago to an amorphous, fluid, distributed and entirely dynamic pooled set of resources and information?

Cisco has thrown their hat in the ring to address the convergence of role-based admission and access control with the announcement of TrustSec which will be available in the Nexus as it is in the higher-end Catalyst switches.  Other vendors such as HP, Extreme and now Juniper as well as up-starts like Nevis and Consentry have their perspectives.  What each of these infrastructure networking vendors have in store for how their solutions will play in the world of virtualized and distributed computing is still to unfold.

How might this emerging phase of technology, architecture, provisioning, management, deployment and virtualization of resources impact security especially since we’ve barely even started to embrace the impact server virtualization has?  One word:


More on this topic shortly…


*Update: A colleague of mine from Unisys, Michael Salsburg, prompted me via discussion to clarify a point.  I think that  for at least the short term, the "server tasks" that will be offloaded to I/O virtualization solutions such as Cisco’s will be fairly narrow in scope and logically defined.  However, given that NX-OS is Linux based, one might expect to see a Hypervisor-like capability within the switch itself, enabling VM’s and applications to be run directly within it.

Certainly we can expect and intermediary technology derivation which would include Cisco developing their own virtual switch that complements/replaces the vSwitch present in the VMM today; at this point given the heft/performance of the Nexus, one could potentially see it existing "outside" the vHost and using a high-speed 10Gb/s connection, redirect all virtual network functions to the external switch…

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  1. January 29th, 2008 at 06:50 | #1

    Do I want or need this kind of switch? The "offloading a number of server tasks to network switches" may make sense from a networking provider perspective. Taking the role of a CIO, I want to offload tasks in as simple a way possible, to whatever thingy can get the job done at the lowest possible price. If it is a switch, fine, if it is a blade server, that's fine too. I would hope it's stuff I already own so I can minimize what I need to purchase. So I pose the question, is it "servers ultimately becoming little more than virtual machines inside a switch", or is the exact opposite more likely? My take on the quote is I buy new switches so I can virtualize, rather than virtualize what I have and add on as needed.

  2. January 29th, 2008 at 11:55 | #2

    Check the update to the post; I think this is just a little grandstanding or a misquote from some lofty marketing person.
    The 7000 (as well as other I/OV solutions) fill an excellent void in the virtualization continuum…we're at the point now where with 10Gb/s Eth. (and 40/100 coming) the pipe size, CPU architectures and virtualization solutions allow — and require — this sort of technology.
    I think Cisco's going to hit a homerun in large organizations that today are dealing with the operational issues of VM sprawl and the resultant impact that virtualization has on networking, storage and security. In those areas, often the costs increase, not decrease, as does the complexity of operation.
    I think this will make life easier and more cost-effective in the long run.

  3. July 24th, 2008 at 14:11 | #3

    Thats a heck of a read. I implemented a number of egenera bladeframes at Vodafone in the Uk and and am strugling a bit to see how there PAN architecture will compete with the likes of Ciscos Nexus.
    The PAN provides a virtualisation environment so that you can have multiple virtual servers sharing i/o and other resources.

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