Experienced data center managers understand all too well that issues with a single cable can delay the deployment of a new system by not only days but weeks or even months. Direct Attach Cables (DACs) and Active Optical Cables (AOCs) are widely deployed to quickly and simply turn up service in Top-of-Rack (ToR) and End-of-Row (EoR) environments. Delays in procuring the correct cable or even pressure to respond to tight schedules offer complexities that can derail data center installations.
New data center service deployments often pose challenges to data center managers for several reasons. For instance, each Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) device requires proprietary coding capabilities, locking users into limited options for scaling and integrating numerous OEM devices throughout their network. Historically, OEM ecosystems have locked network build-outs into a single supply source, leading to derailed installations. Innovations in DAC and AOC cables resolve challenges regarding interconnectivity, broaden supplier sourcing options and decrease the amount of inventory needed to be held. These benefits remove the complexities and keep infrastructure projects on schedule.
Interoperability is key
Top-of-Rack (ToR) deployments are credited for simplifying data center deployments. Reduced cabling costs and easy integration of modular rack-and-stack cabinets are key drivers for the adoption of ToR data center designs. ToR directly connects network elements within a rack to a 1U or 2U switch installed at the top of the rack. ToR typically uses lower-cost copper DACs to offer cost-effective in-cabinet cabling in comparison to designs that run bundles of cables from one cabinet to the next.
Direct connecting switches, servers, and other appliances pose the challenge of interoperability. Interoperability in a ToR environment refers directly to the compatibility of DACs connecting devices from different OEMs. Top-of-Rack deployments that mix switches, servers, load balancers, or storage appliances from multiple OEMs must address the challenge of interoperability.
Many OEM switches and servers require proprietary cables to ensure compatibility. When plugging an OEM (for illustrative purposes this will be called OEM ‘C’) DAC into a switch, the user expects a plug-and-play experience, so the switch will recognize the cable and not present any alarms. No additional workaround commands or special action should be taken.
However, if the user was to take the other end of the cable and plug it into a server from OEM ‘H’, the server may not recognize the cable or may present messages or errors which will alert network monitoring tools. Dominant OEM network equipment vendors are in the business to sell their exclusive ecosystem. They do not offer a solution to ensure interoperability across multiple OEM hardware elements in a directly connect scenario.
Luckily, third-party solutions are available to solve this interoperability challenge. DACs and AOCs can be programmed in the factory for compatibility with each OEM. Furthermore, each end can be programmed for a different OEM.
The hybrid or multi-code DAC solution offers assurance that multi-vendor connections are plug-and-play.
Even 40G/100G breakout connections for multiple OEMs can be supported by hybrid cables coded for multiple OEMs. Each end of these breakout cables can be programmed for a different OEM if the application warrants.
Some OEM network elements may allow workaround commands or accept cables from other OEMs, but these may also present operational ‘workarounds’ requiring documentation and training that will not go away over time. Third-party suppliers have experience in programming pluggable cables and transceivers to work seamlessly with OEM switches and servers – without these workarounds.
Smarter inventory and schedule management
Server cabling adds another level of complexity to ToR interoperability. The Network Interface Cards (NICs) used may vary by manufacturer or as specified by a network design team. A typical example would be a ToR switch from OEM ‘C’ with servers from OEM ‘D’. The data center installers may in fact order hybrid DAC cables with compatible programming with each end coded for the appropriate OEM. However, upon receipt of the OEM ‘D’ servers, the installers learn that the NICs installed are actually from a third manufacturer, OEM ‘I’. The hybrid cables received may or may not be compatible with this revised hardware configuration. All too often this scenario results in data centers holding on to excess inventory of cabling and network elements.
Even if they did know the NIC was OEM ‘I’, interoperability may vary by model number and revision. Meanwhile, project deadlines will suffer as the proper OEM compatible cabling is procured.
Managing inventory for every conceivable cable length, NIC, and OEM combination is not a viable solution for any organization. Fortunately, there are cost-effective solutions available. Field coding systems offer install teams the powerful ability to apply OEM compatible programming on one or both ends of DAC or AOC cables. These systems are available from third-party optics suppliers and offer access to vast libraries of OEM-compatible programming for thousands of network elements. This flexibility allows installing teams to procure the correct cable lengths ahead of project deadlines without concern for compatibility or interoperability.
In addition to DAC and AOC cables, field coding systems offer OEM programming capabilities for network pluggable transceivers, offering a full-service tool for both installations and break-fix requirements. Field coding systems are cloud-based with management tools that track programming history to support network audits.
The critical elements necessary for future data centers
DAC and AOC cables are a critical part of every data center’s Top-of-Rack and End-of-Row deployments, offering greater efficiency, lower power consumption, and an attractive price point. With OEM ecosystems having the ability to lock data centers into proprietary connectivity and provide lead times that can severely impact service levels to the business, data center managers need to consider proven solutions that allow them to do their job more easily and reduce the risk of delays in deployment.
Hybrid DAC/AOC and field coding systems could be the key to data center managers improving the efficiency of their networks in line with the ever-growing demands. By utilizing these solutions today to improve project schedules, inventory management, and service levels to the business, data center operators have access to a robust set of tools to ensure interoperability in ToR environments and allow them to grow in line with the demands of tomorrow.