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vSwitch, Ready For Prime-Time

A Contributed Article by Patrick Hubbard, SolarWinds Head Geek

It's remarkable how similar vSwitch and physical switch features have become.  Obviously one is made of metal and silicon and the other is a bunch of bits in a compressed file, but both their mission and the maturing feature-set across vendors are very similar. vSwitches actually offer some growing advantages to application owners that hardware can't easily match. They also won't break your toes if you drop them in the datacenter.

The primary mission of vSwitchs is to provide high performance while limiting security issues as VMs move across physical hosts.  This has been tricky because it's low level tech, deep inside hypervisors from different vendors, and it takes a while to develop a uniform feature-set on all platforms.  Until this year, they have been OK, but not amazing*.  Don't get me wrong if you're an app manager or you're the hypervisor wrangler they got you by, but as a network geek they're been the second cousin that lives in the host out behind the rack.

* Yes 1000V, you're still a boss, I'll get to you in a bit.

VM Profiles Aren't Just for Memory Requirements

One key to network service integrity is preventing disconnects, orphaning or incorrect application of security profiles to servers.  Once an annoyance on hardware servers, this became a real problem when hypervisors were allowed to optimize resources by moving VMs between hosts automatically.  The vSwitch advantage is that network and security settings can be included in the VM profile.  Even if vCenter OrchestratorTM is the only entity that truly knows where a VM is stashed, its Profile travels with it, including security configuration.

vSwitch Feature Roundup

To illustrate recent progress in vSwich features, consider four examples covering best of class 3rd party, built-in and open source:

The Cisco® 1000V is the granddaddy of vSwitches and at this point its features are fundamentally equivalent to enterprise hardware switches. It was a great move by Cisco and filled the manageability void of the early VMware® ESX® versions.  I won't even try to list its feature set, check them out here (You even get CLI, the quintessential characteristic of any self-respecting network device).  In essence if you're a network geek the 1000v is just like any other switch. It has a couple of drawbacks in that it can be tricky to set up, it's not inexpensive, and has more capability than many admins need.  However, in an interesting move it's now available in a Freemium version to counter substantial improvements in native vSwitches.

The Open vSwitch project has also come a long way, and depending on your operation and management's tolerance for open source is something to consider. For example it offers NetFlow® and sFlow®, openFlow and OVSDB, diverse tunneling protocols and more.   On the downside, you're the final support level if something breaks.

VMware vSwitch keeps getting better and better and is likely a motivating factor for the Cisco 1000V Freemium edition.  As with all things VMware, vSwitch is becoming just another centrally managed vCenterTM feature in the form of dvSwitch. Whether it's the local vSwitch on the host or the cental dvSwitch environment, VMware now provides the bulk of features needed to keep packets flowing correctly including: NetFlow for dvSwitch, DVMirror, NETIOC (VM-level traffic management), improved iSCSI port binding and more. Most organizations can now find just about everything they need out-of-the-box.

Microsoft® Hyper-V® Virtual Switch received a significant upgrade in Server 2012. As always MS is fashionably late, but it usually brings chips and drinks when it does arrive.  VMware is still significantly in the lead here, with Hyper-V missing features like NetFlow, but it does support port ACLs, VM VLAN trunking, private VLANs, bandwidth limits and improved diagnostics.  The big news is the Cisco 1000V is now available for Hyper-V.  Adding 1000V as a 3rd party component adds complexity, but should give Hyper-V shops an answer to the feature gap with ESX.

Just Another Day At The NOC

With all increasing maturity of vSwitch technology, it's finally nearing its true potential from the network Geek's perspective- acting like any other network switch.  Ideally, your network management software should see your virtualized and hardware switch infrastructure as a cohesive unit.  Sure, VMware and Microsoft vSwitch management still requires the involvement of your VM admin, but it's beginning to more closely parallel managing hardware, especially for application service delivery.  Best of all, all of these solutions are free to download and evaluate, giving you the chance to select the right fit for your organization without an army of sales engineers looking over your shoulder.

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About the Author

Patrick Hubbard is a Senior Technical Product Marketing Manager and Head Geek at SolarWinds, an IT management software provider based in Austin, Texas. He joined SolarWinds in 2007 and combines 20 years of technical expertise with IT customer perspective to create geeky content that speaks to fellow networking and systems professionals. Patrick’s previous roles have included product management and strategy, technical evangelism, sales engineering and software development in Austin high-tech and Fortune 500 companies.

Published Friday, February 08, 2013 6:40 AM by David Marshall
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