FCoE adoption: Its impact on storage VARs

FCoE adoption has been relatively slow but steady. And the benefits of Fibre Channel over Ethernet, such as the reduction of the number of switches, cards and cables required for storage networking, continue to make it an attractive option to IT organizations. Storage VARs and integrators may find likely FCoE customers among those who are launching new server virtualization projects.

In this podcast interview, Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group, discusses the market penetration of FCoE and what this means for the channel. Find out what FCoE is and why an organization would benefit from it, how quickly FCoE is catching on in the industry, the opportunity FCoE provides for storage VARs and integrators, whether FCoE is a fleeting technology, and whether IT organizations are prepared to adopt FCoE.

Listen to the podcast on the market penetration of FCoE or read the transcript below.

What is FCoE and why would an organization want to use it?           

Basically, FCoE is Fibre Channel over Ethernet, and it’s really the ability to consolidate storage traffic, Fibre Channel that is, over the Ethernet transport. But it’s not just any Ethernet. It started out as data center Ethernet, or converged enhanced Ethernet. [It’s] now known as data center bridging. Basically, what that Ethernet is, is a little bit different than the normal Ethernet because it enables organizations to have no dropped packets, and really that loss-less Ethernet for the data center.

The main reason organizations are looking to leverage Fibre Channel over Ethernet is that it really helps them reduce the number of switches, cards and cables that they’re putting into the racks. Previously, you would have Fibre Channel cards or Fibre Channel cables going up the Fibre Channel switches, and then another set for all the Ethernet traffic. What this really does is enables you to converge all that and consolidate it all down onto a single set of cards, cables and network switches at the top of the rack.

Another benefit of going to Fibre Channel over Ethernet is that it puts Fibre Channel on the Ethernet roadmap. So instead of going from 4 GB to 8 GB to 16 GB and eventually 32 GB Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel can now run on the Ethernet roadmap, which is 10 GB, 40 GB and 100 GB.  

How quickly is the adoption and deployment of FCoE catching on in the industry? Is that number lower than you’d expect, on par with your expectations or ahead of them?

That’s really the big question, isn’t it, whether or not it’s being rapidly adopted. So far we’ve seen it be adopted, but perhaps at a slower pace than was anticipated. There was a lot of market hype around this, a lot of “Fibre Channel is dead.” We’ve seen this before in the industry—the mainframe was dead, tape is going to be dead, etc. Those technologies have obviously continued on. I think what we’ve seen is [FCoE] is being adopted; it’s a little bit slower, but what we’ve seen is steady growth. [This means] that the technology’s come out, it’s been certified through various technology associations and industry associations, and more importantly, it’s been certified by the industry vendors. We’ve seen a lot of that over the last couple of years, where they’ve come out with their Fibre Channel over Ethernet cards, and the switch vendors have adopted those cards, and even the storage array vendors themselves have started coming out. NetApp I think was the first, and EMC as well. So we are starting to see adoption, and we’re really starting to see as well the converged infrastructure products, if you will, so the VCE Vblocks, the NetApp FlexPod architectures, things like that that are leveraging the Cisco UCS.

The other area we’re seeing it is in those top-of-rack installations as I mentioned earlier, where they’re able to consolidate to the top-of-rack and then split off the traffic. Part of that’s also due to some of the technology limitations of FCoE, in that it was really only a single hop technology, but that’s starting to change. Multihop FCoE is coming out which will enable more than one hop from the server down to the storage array. That’s also going to enable it to start expanding more and grow more.

For storage VARs and integrators, what kind of opportunity does FCoE represent?

For all the storage VARs and integrators out there, right now the biggest opportunity for them is to take part [in] that converged infrastructure play. Any of those vendors who are putting together products based on the UCS, etc., obviously will recognize a great play for FCoE. The other thing for these organizations to realize is that FCoE typically isn’t an initiative unto itself, meaning no one’s going to go out and say, “we need to deploy FCoE, and we’ll start pulling cards.” It’s usually part of a larger initiative, typically like server virtualization, for instance. It shouldn’t be hard to find an organization that’s increasing their use of server virtualization, bringing in new technology. So what we anticipate is that FCoE will be deployed alongside a new implementation of a highly virtualized infrastructure, which right now, as we’ve said earlier, those converged infrastructures are making up the bulk of that.

Critics suggest that FCoE is a passing fad. Is FCoE a temporal technology or is it here to stay? And, what does this mean for the market?

I think a lot of the naysayers out there will say it’s a passing fad; others have said everything else, “Fibre Channel is dead.” I think the reality is somewhere in between that, in that things take time to develop. iSCSI took a little while to develop but it’s still clearly around. Mainframes are still around. But, clearly, it’s not going to replace Fibre Channel. Fibre Channel is still going to be around, and a lot of companies are making significant investments in Fibre Channel. However, when you look at the overall market and you see what a lot of the technology vendors are doing, many of them are making significant investments in this convergence over Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet. But I think what we’re going to see is that it’s going to be that this convergence store is probably going to be bigger than just Fibre Channel over Ethernet. What we’re starting to see is organizations—and you see the [Emulex’s, Broadcom’s, etc.]—trying to drive every technology over Ethernet. So you’re starting to see the Fibre Channel over Ethernet, you’re seeing iSCSI, regular Ethernet, even anticipating RDMA as well, for that server-to-server connectivity, all over Ethernet. I think what people need to realize is that the change is going to be slow, but it is happening, and that all these other technologies are going to exist alongside of it for quite some time to come.

Finally, are IT organizations ready to adopt FCoE?

I think they certainly are in those converged solutions. In that case, it’s something they’re getting as part of the package, and they may or may not even be aware that they’re the Fibre Channel over Ethernet. Certainly, other organizations that I’ve talked to are ready to do it at the top of rack, but they’re really waiting; I haven’t seen a lot of them that are doing end-to-end FCoE yet. I think in order for that to happen, we’re going to need to see a lot of different proof points from other companies that are in this space that are doing it, documenting, and validating what the benefits are of it. I think it’s also going to be, in part, how much those technology vendors who have already supported and validated, actually are pushing it out to the market. In big part, I think it’s going to be part of a larger initiative. As organizations are completing that journey to the private cloud, highly virtualizing and maturing those virtual environments, those vendors need to lay out the benefits of how this convergence will help them and benefit them along that path.

This was first published in June 2011

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