Inter-Fabric Traffic in UCS

It’s been a while since my last post, time sure flies when you’re bouncing all over the place busy as hell.  I’ve been invited to Tech Field Day next week and need to get back in the swing of things so here goes.

In order for Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS) to provide the benefits, interoperability and management simplicity it does, the networking infrastructure is handled in a unique fashion.  This post will take a look at that unique setup and point out some considerations to focus on when designing UCS application systems.  Because Fibre Channel traffic is designed to be utilized with separate physical fabrics exactly as UCS does this post will focus on Ethernet traffic only.   This post focuses on End Host mode, for the second art of this post focusing on switch mode use this link:  Let’s start with taking a look at how this is accomplished:

UCS Connectivity


In the diagram above we see both UCS rack-mount and blade servers connected to a pair of UCS Fabric Interconnects which handle the switching and management of UCS systems.  The rack-mount servers are shown connected to Nexus 2232s which are nothing more than remote line-cards of the fabric interconnects known as Fabric Extenders.  Fabric Extenders provide a localized connectivity point (10GE/FCoE in this case) without expanding management points by adding a switch.  Not shown in this diagram are the I/O Modules (IOM) in the back of the UCS chassis.  These devices act in the same way as the Nexus 2232 meaning they extend the Fabric Interconnects without adding management or switches.  Next let’s look at a logical diagram of the connectivity within UCS.

UCS Logical Connectivity

imageIn the last diagram we see several important things to note about UCS Ethernet networking:

  • UCS is a Layer 2 system meaning only Ethernet switching is provided within UCS.  This means that any routing (L3 decisions) must occur upstream.
  • All switching occurs at the Fabric Interconnect level.  This means that all frame forwarding decisions are made on the Fabric Interconnect and no intra-chassis switching occurs.
  • The only connectivity between Fabric Interconnects is the cluster links.  Both Interconnects are active from a switching perspective but the management system known as UCS Manger (UCSM) is an Active/Standby clustered application.  This clustering occurs across these links.  These links do not carry data traffic which means that there is no inter-fabric communication within the UCS system and A to B traffic must be handled upstream.

At first glance handling all switching at the Fabric Interconnect level looks as though it would add latency (inter-blade traffic must be forwarded up to the fabric interconnects then back to the blade chassis.)  While this is true, UCS hardware is designed for low latency environments such as High Performance Computing (HPC.)  Because of this design goal all components operate at very low latency.  The Fabric Interconnects themselves operate at approximately 3.2us (micro seconds), and the Fabric Extenders operate at about 1.5us.  This means total roundtrip time blade to blade is approximately 6.2us right inline or lower than most Access Layer solutions.  Equally as important with this design switching between any two blades/servers in the system will occur at the same speed regardless of location (consistent predictable latency.)

The question then becomes how is traffic between fabrics handled?  The answer is that traffic between fabrics must be handled upstream (next hop device(s) shown in the diagrams as the LAN cloud.)  This is an important consideration when designing UCS implementations and selecting a redundancy/load-balancing behavior for server NICs.

Let’s take a look at two examples, first a bare-metal OS (Windows, Linux, etc.) next a VMware server.

Bare-Metal Operating System

image In the diagram above we see two blades which have been configured in an active/passive NIC teaming configuration using separate fabrics (within UCS this is done within the service profile.)  This means that blade 1 is using Fabric A as a primary path with B available for failover and blade 2 is doing the opposite.  In this scenario any traffic sent from blade 1 to blade 2 would have to be handled by the upstream device depicted by the LAN cloud.  This is not necessarily an issue for the occasional frame but will impact performance for servers that communicate frequently.


For bare-metal operating systems analyze the blade to blade communication requirements and ensure chatty server to server applications are utilizing the same fabric as a primary:

  • When using a card that supports hardware failover provide only one vNIC (made redundant through HW failover) and place its primary path on the same fabric as any other servers that communicate frequently.
  • When using cards that don’t support HW failover use active/passive NIC teaming and ensure that the active side is set to the same fabric for servers that communicate frequently.

VMware Servers


In the above diagram we see that the connectivity is the same from a physical perspective but in this case we are using VMware as the operating system.  In this case a vSwitch, vDS, or Cisco Nexus 1000v will be used to connect the VMs within the Hypervisor.  Regardless of VMware switching option the case will be the same.  It is necessary to properly design the the virtual switching environment to ensure that server to server communication is handled in the most efficient way possible.


  • For half-width blades requiring 10GE or less total throughput, or full-width blades requiring 20GE or less total throughput provide a single vNIC with hardware failover if available or use an active/passive NIC configuration for the VMware switching.
  • For blades requiring the total active/active throughput of available NICs determine application profiles and utilize port-groups (port-profiles with Nexus 1000v) to ensure active paths are the same for application groups which communicate heavily.


UCS utilizes a unique switching design in order to provide high bandwidth, low-latency switching with a greatly reduced management architecture compared to competing solutions.  The networking requires a  thorough understanding in order to ensure architectural designs provide the greatest available performance.  Ensuring application groups that utilize high levels of server to server traffic are placed on the same path will provide maximum performance and minimal additional overhead on upstream networking equipment.

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Consolidated I/O

Consolidated I/O (input/output) is a hot topic and has been for the last two years, but it’s not a new concept.  We’ve already consolidated I/O once in the data center and forgotten about it, remember those phone PBXs before we replaced them with IP Telephony?  The next step in consolidating I/O comes in the form of getting management traffic, backup traffic and storage traffic from centralized storage arrays to the servers on the same network that carries our IP data.  In the most general terms the concept is ‘one wire.’  ‘Cable Once’ or ‘One Wire’ allows a flexible I/O infrastructure with a greatly reduced cable count and a single network to power, cool and administer.

Solutions have existed and been used for years to do this, iSCSI (SCSI storage data over IP networks) is one tool that has been commonly used to do this.  The reason the topic has hit the mainstream over the last 2 years is that 10GB Ethernet was ratified and we now have a common protocol with the proper bandwidth to support this type of consolidation.  Prior to 10GE we simply didn’t have the right bandwidth to effectively put everything down the same pipe.

The first thing to remember when discussing I/O consolidation is that contrary to popular belief I/O consolidation does not mean Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE.)  I/O consolidation is all about using a single infrastructure and underlying protocol to carry any and all traffic types required in the data center.  The underlying protocol of choice is 10G Ethernet because it’s lightweight, high bandwidth and Ethernet itself is the most widely used data center protocol today.  Using 10GE and the IEEE standards for Data Center bridging (DCB) as the underlying data center network, any and all protocols can be layered on top as needed on a per application basis.  See my post on DCB for more information ( protocols can be FCoE, iSCSI, UDP, TCP, NFS, CIFS, etc. or any combination of them all.

If you look at the data center today most are already using a combination of these protocols, but typically have 2 or more separate infrastructures to support them.  A data center that uses Fibre Channel heavily has two Fibre Channel networks (for redundancy) and one or more LAN networks. These ‘Fibre Channel shops’ are typically still using additional storage protocols such as NFS/CIFS for file based storage.  The cost of administering, powering, cooling, and eventually upgrading/refreshing these separate networks continues to grow.

Consolidating onto a single infrastructure not only provides obvious cost benefits but also provides the flexibility required for a cloud infrastructure.  Having a ‘Cable Once’ infrastructure allows you to provide the right protocol at the right time on an application basis, without the need for hardware changes.

Call it what you will I/O Consolidation, Network Convergence, or Network Virtualization, a cable once topology that can support the right protocol at the right time is one of the pillars of cloud architectures in the data center.

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