Developing the SAP Data Center : Network Infrastructure for SAP

3/12/2013 7:23:41 PM

Given that SAP is architected to support a distributed three-tiered design, a slew of configurations exist that can potentially impact high availability. There are similar performance considerations as well, as the database, application, and Web tier layers are all affected. For example, a back-end network is recommended to interconnect the database and the application servers, another network interconnects the application servers to the Web/Internet layers, and a third public network addresses client requirements. If you plan on pulling backups across the network (rather than via a disk subsystem that supports direct-attached SCSI or fibre channel tape drives), a separate back-end network subnet is highly recommended in this case, too.

In all cases, 100Mbit switched network segments are warranted, if not Gigabit Ethernet. Backups are very bandwidth-intensive, and if data is transmitted over otherwise crowded network lines, database disconnects between your application and database servers may result, for example. In this case more than any other, therefore, Gigabit is warranted. Beyond network-enabled backups, the second preferred subnet in which to leverage Gigabit includes the network connecting the application and database servers, where traffic can also be quite heavy. This is especially true as more and more enterprises grow their mySAP environment by adding new SAP components but insist on leveraging the same backend network.

The application/Web tier often consists of a single 100Mbit subnet. As the application servers/Web servers are usually not considered critical from a backup perspective, dedicated network backup segments are usually not warranted in this case—these servers usually contain fairly static data that lends itself to weekly or other less-regular backups.

The Web tier is typically split, though. In the case of SAP ITS implementations, for instance, an application gateway (AGATE) connects to the SAP application servers, a Web gateway (WGATE) connects to the AGATE, and the end users connect to the Web gateway. Thus, the WGATE is often housed in a secure DMZ for access via the Internet or an intranet, while the AGATE remains behind a firewall, safe in its own secure subnet, as you see in Figure 1. In this way, the network accommodates the performance needs of the enterprise without sacrificing security.

Figure 1. Network architecture involves every layer of the SAP Solution Stack, from the database server up to the application and Web layers.

Network Fault Tolerance

As I indicated earlier, there are many ways to architect a network solution for SAP. Simply segregating each layer in the solution stack achieves minimum performance metrics but does not address availability. In fact, it actually increases the chance of a failure, as more and more single-point-of-failure components are introduced. Fault tolerance must therefore be built into the design, not looked at afterwards. To this end, I will next discuss the primary method by which network availability is designed into the SAP data center, using an approach I call availability through redundancy.

Just as a redundant power infrastructure starts with the servers, disk subsystems, and other hardware components, so too does a redundant network infrastructure start with the networked servers. Here, redundant network interface cards, or NICs, are specified, each cabled to redundant network hubs or switches, which are in turn connected to redundant routers. Figure 2 illustrates this relationship between the servers and a highly available network infrastructure.

Figure 2. This example shows what a properly architected highly available network infrastructure may look like for SAP.

Network fault tolerance starts not only with two (or otherwise redundant) NIC cards, but also with OS-specific drivers capable of pairing two or more physical network cards into one “virtual” card. Hardware vendors often refer to this as teaming or pooling, but other labels have been used for this important piece of the network puzzle. Regardless of the label, the idea is simple: Pair two or more network cards together, and use both concurrently for sending and receiving the same exact packets of data. Then, use the data on one network card/network segment (referred to as the “primary” NIC), and discard or ignore the (exact same) data on the other NIC as long as the network is up and things are going well. If a failure occurs with one of the NICs, network segments, or hubs/switches on the “redundant” path, continue processing packets as always on the primary path—business as usual. However, if a failure occurs with one of the NICs, network segments, or hubs/switches on the “primary” path, immediately turn to the redundant path and start processing the data moving through this path instead.

Today, most every operating system supports NIC teaming for high availability. Many OSes also support variations of NIC teaming geared toward improving performance, including network bonding, adaptive load balancing, FastEtherChannel, Gigabit EtherChannel, and more. Remember, though, that these latter variations do not necessarily improve availability; teaming must either be inherently supported by or used in conjunction with these different performance-enhancing techniques or approaches.

Not All Server Configurations Support NIC Teaming

Some operating systems simply do not support specific network cards when it comes to NIC teaming. Further, Microsoft’s cluster service specifically prohibits clustering the private high-availability server interconnect, or heartbeat connection, regardless of the type of NIC—Microsoft simply does not support teaming the heartbeat. Network availability in this case is gained by configuring the cluster service such that both the private and public networks can send “still alive” messages between the cluster nodes. As an aside, best practices suggest that the private network be preferred for this activity, and that the public network only be leveraged when the private network fails or is otherwise unavailable.

Let us return to our primary discussion on designing and implementing highly available networks for SAP. Remember, each NIC in the team should be connected to a different switch that in turn is connected to a separate router or separate card in a highly available router configuration (as required). Each redundant switch, router, and any other network gear must then be serviced by redundant power to indeed create an NSPOF, or no single point of failure, configuration. Insofar as best practices are concerned, I recommend that you also adhere to the following guidelines:

  • All network interfaces must be hard-coded or set to a specific speed, for example, 100Mbit Full Duplex. Refrain from using the “auto configure” function, regardless of how tempting it is to avoid three or four mouse clicks per server to hard-code each NIC setting specifically. This is especially a problem if ignored in clusters or in network environments characterized by switches and hubs servicing different network segments running at different speeds. Using the “auto configure” setting can easily mask network problems, including intermittently failing network cards, and ultimately add hours or even days to troubleshooting cluster issues.

  • Keep in mind that NIC teaming is implemented via a software/driver-level function. Thus, anytime one or more NICs participating in a team are replaced, swapped out, or reconfigured, the team should be dissolved and reconfigured again. Failure to do so could create issues difficult to troubleshoot, including intermittent or unusual operation of the NIC team.

  • Most servers manufactured in the last 10 years take advantage of multiple system busses. Each bus is normally capable of achieving a certain maximum throughput number. For a 64-bit 66MHz PCI bus, this number is something approaching 528 MB/second. To achieve even greater throughput, then, NICs need to reside in different busses. Taken one step further, the idea of multiple busses should also get you thinking about high availability. Remember, an NSPOF solution theoretically relies on redundant components everywhere, even inside the servers. So, multiple PCI busses fit the bill—as an added level of fault tolerance, place the NICs in different PCI busses.

  • Finally, if multiple NIC teams are configured (for example, in the case of SAP Application servers, where redundant connections are preferred to both the database server and the public network or Internet/Web intranet layer), it is important to ensure that the MAC address of the first team represents the primary address of the server. The primary address of the server thus maps back to its name on the public network. This sounds a bit complicated, but hopefully makes sense in Figure 3. Here, Network Fault Tolerant Team #6 represents the public team. Further, the MAC address of NIC #1 of this team is the MAC address “seen” by other servers. In this way, both name resolution and failover work as expected.

    Figure 3. A unambiguous graphical user interface can help clear up otherwise complicated multi-NIC teaming configurations.

Central Systems and Optimal Network Configuration

Network configurations for SAP are also impacted by the type of server deployed in the system landscape. All of our attention thus far has been focused on three-tiered architectures, where the database, application, and client components of SAP are broken out into three different servers/hardware platforms. However, it is also quite common to deploy two-tiered SAP systems, or “Central Systems,” especially when it comes to small training systems or uncomplicated testing environments. In this case, the first question a network engineer new to SAP asks is “Do I cable the system to the public network, or the back-end database network?”

The question is valid. And because each option seems to make sense, there has been debate in the past on this very topic, to the point where SAP finally published an excellent paper on network recommendations for different system landscapes. Let’s assume that our Central System is an R/3 Development server, and take a closer look at each option in an effort to arrive at the best answer.

If our new network engineer cables the Central System to the back-end network (a network segment upon which other three-tiered SAP database servers reside), the following points are true:

  • Given that the Central System is also a database server, the database resides where it is “supposed to”—on the back-end network.

  • Any traffic driven by the DB server thus inherently remains on the back end as well. For example, if the SAP BW Extractors are loaded on this system, all of the network traffic associated with pulling data from our R/3 system to populate BW cubes stays off the public network. Again, our network traffic remains where it is supposed to.

  • Any other DB-to-DB traffic, like transports, mass updates or data loads, and so on, also stays on the back-end.

  • However, because our server is not on the public network, it is not as easily accessed by users and administrators. That is, name resolution becomes a challenge.

  • Further, because the back-end network tends to be much busier than typical public networks (which from an SAP perspective only service low-bandwidth SAPGUI and print job traffic most of the time), our end-user response times will vary wildly, suffering across the board.

These are interesting points, but imagine how complex the issue becomes if your Central System now grows into an SAP cluster. In this case, because a cluster is implemented as a three-tiered configuration, you might be inclined to hang one node (the database node) off the private network, and the Central Instance/Application Server Node off the public network. But what happens when the second cluster node fails over and the DB node becomes the CI/Application server as well as retaining its DB Server role? Or vice versa, and the CI/Application server takes on the role of the database server, too?

By now, you should understand that the best network solution in this case is not an either/or answer. Rather, the best solution is predicated on accessibility to both the private and public networks. This is accomplished by adding another network card into the server, NIC #2, and setting it up for connectivity to the back-end network. Meanwhile, the original NIC (now labeled NIC #1) is moved to the public network, where it is assigned a public IP address. Name resolution and other public network-related services regarding accessibility are now easily addressed. And by using static routing, all DB-to-DB traffic is retained on the back-end network segment as desired. Best of all, the cost to achieve this solution is minimal—a second NIC, another IP address, and a few hours of time are really all that is required.

To verify that your static routing indeed operates as it should after SAP has been installed, launch a SAPGUI session, log in with typical SAP Basis rights and privileges, and follow these steps:

Execute transaction /nSMLG.

Press F6 to go to the Message Server Status Area.

Verify that your PUBLIC subnet (under “MSGSERVER”) is listed under the Logon Group Name. If this is not the case, return to the previous screen and under the Instance column, double-click each application server, and then click the Attributes tab.

In the IP address field, enter the associated PUBLIC subnet for each server, and then click the Copy button.

Verify these settings again, by highlighting the application server and pressing the F6 key—the logon group will list the PUBLIC subnet.

By following these steps, you can in essence verify that the traffic associated with end users stays on the public network, thus ensuring that their response times will be as fast as possible—certainly faster than if the end-user traffic was routed over the back-end network.

With your highly available and optimized network infrastructure installed, you can now turn to the next few layers in the SAP Solution Stack—the network server and the server operating system.

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