Steps to FCoE readiness

FCoE-compliant products are shipping, and there are problems in the data center that could be solved by the technology. Find out what steps to take to get your company and your customers ready for FCoE and what projects are good candidates for it.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE, is scoring high right now on the hype meter, but are your customers ready for it? And, more importantly, are you ready to provide it? Don't panic if the answers to those questions are no. In our three-part series on FCoE readiness, we'll tell you what steps to take to prepare both yourself and your customers for the technology.

In the first part of this series, let's first talk about what the FCoE standard does: It converges storage and IP protocols onto a single cable transport and interface. The goal is to reduce cable count, switch complexity and interface card count in servers.

From a reseller perspective, for a technology to be worth investing in, you need to have a product that solves customers' problem and customers that agree it's a problem they'll spend money to fix. (By introducing the customer to the technology, you can help them realize that that they have a problem. I never knew I "needed" an HDTV until I saw one.)

First, the product end of things: The FCoE standard was ratified in June by the INCITS T11 standards body and has been passed along to ANSI for its approval. The related Data Center Bridging (enhanced Ethernet) standard, which works in tandem with FCoE, isn't as far along in the process. But, as normally happens with new standards, vendors are already shipping products that support it. For instance, Cisco has its Nexus-series switches; Brocade has a complete lineup of cards, switches and blades for the DCX Backbone; and Emulex, in addition to standard CNA cards, has several blade server-sized products in the works. The product is there.

Next is the issue of customer need. FCoE can solve problems for your customers, especially in virtualized server environments, by improving bandwidth and reducing cable count to racks and the number of I/O adapters that servers require. But will customers spend money to gain these benefits, and, if so, when will they do it? In short, when will FCoE make it to the top of their whiteboard, and how do you make sure you're ready?

While the ultimate answer to the money question will rest with your customers and, on a macro level, will depend to a large degree on the United States' economic recovery, you need to take steps now. There are two reasons: You need to prepare for greater adoption later, and you need to help customers ID FCoE as worthy of their investment or help them cost-justify FCoE as a more cost-effective long-term investment despite the economy.

The first step toward those goals is to test and understand FCoE products. If you have a lab, set up a FCoE environment so you can begin testing. At a minimum, make sure your entire team is educated on the technology. Suppliers, the media and analysts are all talking up FCoE, so your customers are going to begin asking questions. You'll be much better off if your response isn't a blank stare. You should also leverage your research and education by sharing your efforts with customers. Have an FCoE demo day or a "What is FCoE?" seminar. This gives you increased interaction with your customers and sets you up as the FCoE expert. (We'll go into more detail on this in the next part of our FCoE series.)

The second step is to map out a plan for conversion to FCoE with your customers. As we discuss in the article "Planning for FCoE," our suggestion is to be realistic. Most customers are not going to rip out their entire infrastructure and replace it with FCoE equipment -- certainly not in this economy. But they are expanding their server virtualization projects, and that's a good opportunity to sell FCoE equipment.

With customers that are planning a new rack of virtualized servers, a top-of-rack deployment strategy is ideal; it's the most logical way to do it right now. It involves using an FCoE switch at the top of the rack, installing FCoE adapters in the virtualization hosts and then connecting FCoE cables from the top-of-rack switch to the adapters. The top-of-rack switch should have Fibre Channel and Ethernet ports. The FC connects to the existing storage infrastructure and Ethernet to the existing IP infrastructure. This approach provides your customers with the immediate value of improved performance, reduced cable count and reduced interface card count in that rack. It also allows them to step into a transition to FCoE without losing any of their current investment.

About the author

George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.

This was first published in November 2009

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