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Force10: Linux Accelerates Need for Bandwidth

The Network Is the Platform

  • August 3, 2003
  • By Brian Proffitt

Distance barriers are breaking down all of the time, thanks to the now-taken-for-granted miracle of the Internet. The fact that you are reading an article on a server located in Connecticut that was uploaded from a Linux PC in Indiana from wherever in the world you are right now is evidence of that. The world, it seems, is becoming distributed.

The technology behind the Internet is no mystery or miracle. Wires, routers, servers--it's all been talked about before. But a new form of technology is putting some serious demands on the old plumbing of the Internet, which is leading one company to provide more transfer bandwidth on an almost ubiquitous scale.

The company is called Force10, and they make some seriously fast routers--like up in the 1 to 10 Gigabit (Gb) range. The demand for such speed and capacity is rocketing upwards, and guess what? A lot of it is due to Linux.

The recent growth of Linux in the arena of grid computing has been demonstrated over and over in media media outlets, through many success stories of Linux being used in massive cluster systems that can leave the old supercomputer systems coughing in the dust as far as speed, computational power, and cost. In government and academic applications, especially, the growth rate of Linux/cluster adoption is huge.

According to Marshall Eisenberg, Director of Technical Sales for Force10, this is leading to a commoditization of Gb Ethernet routers, which he speculates is pretty much at the same adoption point the Internet was in 1999. The huge demand for high-throughput routers from clustering and distributed computing systems is boosting the rapid adoption of single-Gb technology, and is starting to open the door for higher transfer-rate routers--namely 10 Gb systems.

As application development starts shifting to open source, Eisenberg explained, more and more agencies are able to enhance their applications' power by converting them to a distributed- or cluster-friendly mode. Not only are the applications able to work more effectively over multiple systems, but the easy access to Internet protocol stacks in open-source platforms allows developers and administrators to increase the capabilities of the data transport protocols and serious jack up the throughput of their applications. A great deal of these efforts have been started in the government and aceadmia, Eisenberg said, but enterprise IT shops are strating to look more and more towards his company's high-bandwidth systems for their own purposes.

"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when," Eisenberg pronounced.

Right now, enterprises are looking at high-bandwidth systems, such as blade servers with 1-Gb ports, for clustering, virtualizations, and disaster recovery and backup purposes. In the private sector, there is a "quagmire of solutions in the enterprise," Eisenberg said, "But now there is a narrowing of bandwidth requirements" as more companies figure out just what kind of throughput they need.

"Bandwidth is not a luxury item," he said, "it's a requirement."

The demand for high-bandwidth routers is directly keyed to the increase of distributed applications, which in turn is keyed right to the rapid growth of Linux, Eisenberg believes.

"Linux is unleashing the power of the operating system," he added.

Force10 hopes to be a big part of that ongoing growth, as they start ramping up production of 10-Gb hardware. Bandwidth, after all, is going to be the key to future of IT, Eisenberg believes.

For example, certain distributed systems currently will use dormant CPU cycles of networked machines to complete certain computations. There are limitations to this sharing of cycles, as the machines usually need to be of similar architecture and have some sort of client application running on them to start when the system is quiet.

But thanks to the growing availablity of bandwidth, Eisenberg is seeing a time in the not-so-distant future where all systems' idle CPUs will be used--in real time, on any platform.

"Enterprise developers are realizing there are spare CPUs out on their network and they will be able to parcel out jobs that will work on dissimilar machines," Eisenberg said. "This is a much more optimal use of CPUs, with more useful data in a more seamless fashion.

"When that occurs," he added, "the assumption will be that there is plentiful bandwidth."

Force10 is even providing hardware to the very researchers who are trying to figure out how to optimize all of this high-powered distributed computing. This winter, Force10 sold some of its 1-Gb Force10 E-Series switch/routers to the University of Amsterdam's Global Grid Forum and DataGrid group: a project designed to solve infrastructure and networking problems inherent with distributed computing.

The project, which is known as OptIPuter, is so named for its use of optical networking, Internet Protocol, computer storage, processing and visualization technologies. It is a "virtual machine" that sits atop a LambdaGrid, an experimental network of optical fiber, where each fiber carries data on multiple wavelengths of light (lambdas) to connect distributed computing resources at speeds equivalent to internal PC bus speeds. Each lambda can transmit data at 1 to 10 Gb per second (Gbps), and soon will achieve 40 Gbps and greater speeds.

The system installed at the StarLight site at the University of Illinois in Chicago and the NetherLight site at the University of Amsterdam will make those facilities the most advanced 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps switch/router exchanges in the world.

Dr. Cees de Laat, Associate Professor of Science at the Univerity of Amsterdam, said that the project is interested in "deploying applications on a worldwide scale.

Applications, even distributed ones, have had a hard time dealing with global area distribution, because they are not optimized to handle such problems as bottlenecks and lost packets. Typically distributed apps usually follow a point-to-point or even few-to-few distribution, but little else, de Laat explained.

The OptIPuter project allows researchers "really experiment with high-bandwidth protocols," de Laat said, and begin solving for these inherent network problems.

Force10 sees itself on the cutting edge of such technological leaps, as bandwidth becomes more of a factor in enterprise distributed computing--an area where Linux is also starting to take the lead.

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