Tech Watch: Emerging FCoE spec to extend life of Fibre Channel SANs

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is still much closer to proof-of-concept than real product, but it promises to make your customers' existing FC equipment more efficient while complying with mandates for consolidation. Find out what other benefits the spec is expected to bring in this Tech Watch.

First things first: Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is still much closer to proof-of-concept than real product. It is not a replacement for or alternative to iSCSI, as debated by some. But its potential as a convergence technology within the data center already has the attention of enterprise storage VARs.

As an emerging storage network technology intended mainly for midsized businesses or larger corporate accounts, FCoE promises several benefits to IT managers by allowing SAN traffic to run natively over a lossless Ethernet infrastructure. These benefits include the fact that FCoE is designed to consolidate I/O traffic on the server side by cutting back on network interface cards (NICs), and to help reduce power and cooling costs -- all while offering the same management model as native Fibre Channel.

"Everyone talks about getting to a single wire, a single network, a single interface. This is another step in that direction," said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst for The StorageIO Group, a research and consulting firm in Minneapolis. He said the FCoE concept is most appealing in larger companies that have significant Fibre Channel investments, which is one reason why this specification will coexist alongside iSCSI.

"The idea of having a single, high-speed network for both IP and Fibre Channel traffic is enticing," said Scott Smith, senior vice president with data center VAR Micro Strategies Inc. in Denville, N.J. "The thought of having to manage only one network should alone be enough to warrant the investigation of FCoE. Add in the fact that with today's budgets being pushed to the limits, with FCoE we should be able to achieve a high-performance, highly available network while saving some money."

FCoE sparked speculation and discussion last spring when a cadre of leading storage vendors -- including Brocade Communications Systems, Cisco Systems, EMC, Emulex, IBM, Intel, Nuova, QLogic and Sun Microsystems -- teamed up to propose standards for the specification to the T11 Committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Also crucial to its emergence are two standards from the IEEE 802 committee: 802.3x PAUSE, which defines and enables lossless Ethernet, and IEEE 802.1p for priority flow control.

FCoE is in no way meant to be an alternative to iSCSI, which enables SAN connections over Internet Protocol (IP), according to Wayne Adams, senior technologist with the office of the chief technology officer for EMC in Hopkinton, Mass. However, FCoE offers a way for data centers to make their existing Fibre Channel equipment more efficient while complying with corporate mandates for consolidation and efficiency. "This will definitely be another technology which VARs and distributors will need to handle in terms of configurations and installations," Adams said.

While there is no shipping FCoE product available today, there are a number of companies experimenting with proof-of-concept technology, said Lisa Guess, senior product manager for emerging solutions with Brocade in San Jose, Calif. The first enterprise-class products are likely to hit the market in 2009, with the market ramping up in the 2010 to 2011 timeframe, she said.

"The thing that is really driving this is that FCoE extends all the value and investment that companies have made in their Fibre Channel SANs. The zoning is handled in the same way, the applications are handled in the same way. There is minimal disruption," Guess said.

That said, FCoE isn't an inexpensive proposition, because it will require investments in 10 Gigabit Ethernet. On the server side, FCoE will be expressed in the form of converged adapters and switches that are capable of carrying both IP traffic and Fibre Channel encapsulation and can also accommodate high-performance computing activity. Each FCoE switch will include Fibre Channel and Ethernet ports to connect into the existing Fibre Channel fabric or IP network. No one is talking pricing yet.

EMC's Adams said another challenge to adoption will be marrying the sometimes conflicting IT management agendas between the networking group, which is being asked to prioritize bandwidth among an ever-growing array of network applications including unified communications, and the storage team, which is driven by concerns such as resiliency and redundancy.

This concern is echoed by channel storage expert Smith. "As with any new product, there are going to be bumps in the road," he said. "I believe the biggest obstacle will be who will manage: the IP network group or the storage group. We have seen much friction between the storage and IP networks groups when deploying [Fibre Channel over IP] and iSCSI. I think it will worsen with FCoE."

More on Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE)

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) overrated storage technology

How will the appearance of the Fibre Channel over Ethernet standard change the dynamics within the SAN market? Will it take steam away from iSCSI?

This is a recipe for increased management complexity, said Greg Nightingale, manager of enterprise storage for San Antonio-based Sirius Computer Solutions. "Longer-term, the true benefits of FCoE will require dedicated host-based adapters that look like Fibre Channel protocol to the server and Ethernet to the network. This will lead to specialized switches that can concurrently support Ethernet and Fibre Channel protocol frames, and handle each appropriately -- i.e., no dropped frames for Fibre Channel protocol traffic. That adds cost and complexity, and as we've seen with Fibre Channel protocol and iSCSI, that will take some time to mature, technologically and financially."

That's why most storage VARs are keeping tabs on the specification but will wait before investing in training. "It's a solution looking for a problem," said Keith Norbie, director of the storage division for Nexus Information Systems in Plymouth, Minn. "That said, if the transactional overhead is dramatically less and then more efficient, I will look at it."

About the author
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist and consultant on high-tech channel communications with SWOT Management Group. She can be reached at hclancy@swotmg.com.

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