Lenovo’s Virtualized, Cloud-Optimized Data Center Networking

By Jane Clabby, Clabby Analytics


Clabby Analytics last reported on Lenovo’s progress in the x86 systems marketplace in February (the company had recently acquired IBM’s System x division and showed us their new research and development facilities in Raleigh, North Carolina – as well as share their product and go-to-market strategies). Last week, Lenovo briefed us on it new networking solutions (Lenovo acquired IBM’s networking group as part of the System x acquisition).

At Clabby Analytics, I track communications and networking market activities – and I have been following IBM networking for quite a while (starting at BLADE Network Technologies in 2006, acquired by IBM in 2010, and then sold to Lenovo in 2014). When IBM acquired BLADE, I thought it was a brilliant acquisition because it gave the company control of its own destiny in systems, storage and networking – but then IBM chose to get out of the commodity systems and networking businesses due to low margins and intense competition. I was disappointed by IBM’s move – but excited because Lenovo knows how to sell into commodity markets.

Lenovo’s briefing focused on its networking strategy, its data center networking activities and a set of newly announced networking products that support the company’s networking strategy.

Lenovo’s Networking Strategy

Here is what I learned:

  • The focus continues to be on data center networking: server-to-server/server-to-storage/storage-to-storage – and on “edge servers” (the servers that represent the first hub of in some network designs);
  • Lenovo differentiates its products with feature that combine server, NIC and switch functions; and,
  • The company has a 3-prong strategy around server/network simplification; cloud-optimized architecture; and SDN network virtualization.

Also interesting – while IBM focused on networking as a means to support and drive software and services sales, Lenovo is aligned and optimized for growing revenue and market share in networking hardware. As a leader in the PC business, Lenovo has a highly vertically integrated manufacturing and supply chain that can provide significant economies of scale. The company anticipates growth in networking hardware to be fueled by aggressive pricing, differentiation through cloud enablement, and partnerships with SDN software vendors (VMware, Microsoft, OpenStack etc.).

From a product perspective, Lenovo provides “networking value” in these areas:

  1. Simplicity For example, Easy Connect auto-configuration mode provides transparent upstream connectivity for switches. VLANs don’t need to be configured and switches are easily integrated into existing networks. In addition, in Easy Connect mode, east/west traffic – traffic stays in the chassis, improving performance and using fewer core networking ports;
  2. Cloud-ready Switches will provide automatic network provisioning, are VM aware, including VXLAN gateway support, and SDN ready with OpenFlow and other features; and,
  3. Open architecture switches support SDN, OpenFlow and other interoperability standards (UFP, FCoE, OpenStack etc.) Although Lenovo does not offer its own SDN controller, Lenovo switching is optimized for standard SDN overlay support, standard OpenFlow support and differentiates with an intelligent underlay (physical network). While Lenovo partners with VMware for network virtualization and network management and control through VMware vCenter, future plans include support for RedHat OpenStack and Microsoft Hyper-V Network virtualization.

Existing Product Portfolio and Use Cases

Lenovo’s networking portfolio is comprised of: (1) Embedded switches including FCoE, 1G (10G uplinks) and 10G Ethernet (40G uplinks) and 10G port aggregator (2) Top of rack access layer switches including 1G (10G uplinks) and 10G Ethernet (40G uplinks optional), 40G Ethernet and converged FCoE (3) Switch Center network management and (4) Lenovo Network Operating System with support for OpenFlow 1.3.1; interoperability with Cisco, Juniper and others; and advanced features including virtualized server I/O, VM-aware networking, converged networking, addressing security and multi-tenancy.

According to Lenovo, its customer networking deployments generally fall into four categories:

  1. Access layer connectivity which enables the ability to easily deploy a rack or racks at a time;
  2. Scalable Flex Point-of-Delivery (POD) – Flex System Interconnect Fabrics, an integrated solution comprised of compute, network, storage, and software resources;
  3. Leaf &Spine (lower latency/more efficient/highly scalable network topology when compared to spanning tree) 1Gb and 10Gb; and,
  4. 40GbE Leaf and Spine.

New Product Announcements

Lenovo’s new product announcements include:

 Lenovo Flex System S14091 10Gb System Interconnect Module

Focused on channel and lower cost than HP and Cisco; competitive cost to Dell (source: Lenovo)

  • Low cost ($7,999) for optimal price/performance
  • Preconfigured mode enables easy set-up and management
  • 24 ports (14 internal, 10 external)
  • Easy connectivity and interoperability
  • FCoE convergence as transit switch

Lenovo Rackswitch G8272

Targeting workloads involving traffic between racks in Web 2.0, Hyperscale, Financial and Enterprise Data Centers (source: Lenovo)

  • Follow-on to G8264 ($10,000 less expensive@$19,999)
  • 48 x 10GbE and 6 x 40Gbs, 1U, 54-port switch or up to 72 10G ports
  • Lower latency; better power consumption
  • VXLAN network virtualization through overlays as hardware gateway (future)
  • 3 year service and support warranty
  • Simplified Layer 2/Layer 3 mode configuration
  • Supports 50% more 40Gb ports standard
  • OpenFlow support

Lenovo Rackswitch G8296

Lenovo’s first 2U switch couples well with Lenovo’s dense servers to compete against Cisco Nexus 5596UP 2U switch (source: Lenovo)

  • 10Gb, 2U, 96-port switch (86 x 10GbE and 10 x 40GbE)
  • Lower latency; better power consumption
  • VXLAN network virtualization through overlays as hardware gateway (future)
  • 3 year service and support warranty
  • Simplified Layer 2/Layer 3 mode configuration
  • OpenFlow support

Networking OS Enhancements

Lenovo enables customers to choose Lenovo NOS or 3rd party NOS (source: Lenovo)

  • Security features to protect Lenovo firmware against unauthorized tampering
  • NSX Gateway services transparently integrate virtual and physical networking workloads for easy transition to cloud infrastructures
  • Automated provisioning via Easy Connect and Python tools for routed networks
  • Zero downtime serviceability

Summary Observations

IBM had a good networking product strategy at the time it decided to divest its networking products. The company had focused on network integration, cloud/software defined networking, power conservation, improved backplane throughput and consolidation. But IBM does not have a commodity markets mentality – the R&D investment in communications/networking products, the intense competition and the lower margins in the networking business don’t match IBM’s high-value business model. So IBM let its networking group go to Lenovo along with the rest of System x.

As I see it, Lenovo has benefitted greatly from this acquisition. It can now design and deliver better integrated systems (because its networking technologies can be used in the company’s chassis, rack, multi-rack or PODs environments). As an example of how owning your own networking technologies can benefit systems designs, consider that some Lenovo systems can achieve 4.8x faster backplane throughput using Lenovo internal switching when compared to other integrated systems. Further, the company obtained advanced cloud and software-defined networking technologies (and linkage to OpenStack support). And, IBM’s focus on lower power consumption passed over to Lenovo – which now claims that its networking products consume 25% less energy compared to its major competitors. Lenovo has benefited greatly from previous IBM research and development.

As I look back, I still contend that owning key server, storage and networking technologies help companies build better, high-performance systems solutions. Companies that own all three assets can modify one to benefit another (for instance, modifying internal switches to dramatically improve the performance of a given system). If a company does not own a vital resource (like networking), then it must rely on its partners to modify their products to meet system design needs or adapt its own offerings to align with partners’ products. Lenovo is now in a great position: it can now control its destiny in servers, storage and networks – all of which are vital to building a highly integrated information systems infrastructure.

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