The Fabric ERA

“Fabric” is a loosely used term, which today creates more confusion instead of offering direction.

What exactly is a Fabric ? What is a Switch Fabric?

Greg Ferro did a post here explaining how Ethernet helped the layer 2 switch fabric evolve. Sadly the use of switch fabric did not stop there. And this is the part where the confusion trickles in.

The term fabric has been butchered (mostly by marketing people) to incorporate just about any function these days. The term ‘switch fabric’ today (in the networking industry) is broadly used to describe among others the following:

  • The structure of an ASIC, e.g., the cross bar silicon fabric.
  • The hardware forwarding architecture used within layer2 bridges or switches.
  • The hardware forwarding architecture used with routers, e.g., the Cisco CRS and its 3-stage Benes switch fabric.
  • Storage topologies like the fabric-A and fabric-B SAN architecture.
  • Holistic Ethernet technologies like TRILL, Fabric-Path, Short-Path Bridging, Q-Fabric, etc.
  • A port extender device that is marketed as a fabric extender (a.k.a. FEX) namely the Cisco Nexus 2000 series.

In short, a switch fabric is basically the interconnection of points with the purpose to transport data from one point to another. These points, as evolved with time, could represent anything from an ASIC, to a port, to a device, to an entire architecture.

Cisco added a whole new dimension to this by marketing a Port Extender device as a Fabric Extender and doing so with different FEX architectures namely VM-FEX and Adapter FEX…. More on that in the next post. :)

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