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FCoE: How to prepare customers for it

Find out which customers are better suited for Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and how you should prepare them for the specification, now that it's been ratified.

With the recent ratification of the FCoE (Fibre Channel over Ethernet) specification, value-added resellers (VARs) and their customers may now find themselves wading through a mountain of claims and counterclaims regarding this new technology while evaluating competing products and vendors. As with many technologies today, FCoE is more evolution than revolution. It's an attempt to overcome the limitations of two technologies for building storage networks: Fibre Channel and iSCSI. This evolution creates opportunities for channel partners to be more than just resellers of product, preparing customers for the spec and continuing their march into more consultative roles with higher-level value propositions.

Currently, Fibre Channel is the high-performance storage networking technology of choice, supporting a range of data reliability and security features. Though in existence since the late 1990s, Fibre Channel continues to trail Ethernet with respect to throughput and distance extension. iSCSI, on the other hand, connects hosts and storage devices natively over IP networks, forming low-cost storage networks. The low cost and availability of iSCSI has made it a popular choice in small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) or for remote office or branch office applications. However, since it is based on IP networks, iSCSI is negatively impacted by overhead and does not include the security and management features of Fibre Channel.

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With FCoE, a new protocol that expands Fibre Channel into the Ethernet environment, VARs and customers will begin to hear terms such as unified fabric, or I/O consolidation: synonymous terms that refer to a common network infrastructure carrying different types of traffic. In other words, customers may now install and operate a single network instead of two or three. For example, with FCoE, a single converged network adapter (CNA) will replace older network interface cards (NICs), host bus adapters (HBAs) and host channel adapters (HCAs), a beneficial option in blade servers where usually only a single card is supported.

Despite that Fibre Channel is expected to continue to dominate over FCoE for a number of years, there are indications that raw-dollars growth for FCoE will eclipse that of Fibre Channel in the next few years. According to Dell'Oro Group projections, Fibre Channel over Ethernet revenue will grow approximately $300 million between 2010 and 2011 vs. a $180 million increase for Fibre Channel.

So does this purportedly good news mean customers should immediately rush to exchange their old storage network infrastructure with Fibre Channel over Ethernet? No more so than individual families should necessarily run out and replace their existing family car with a new, more fuel-efficient hybrid, "Cash for Clunkers" notwithstanding. As with most evolutionary technologies, the answers will vary depending upon a customer's data center size and lifecycle of the infrastructure.

There are a number of scenarios to consider before preparing and finalizing a customer's data center cabling and protocol approach. As a VAR, you should become familiar with these scenarios, working with customers to consult more effectively. Following are a few scenarios to consider.

Large data centers

When evaluating customer accounts with existing large data centers, it is important to understand the current technology. If there is an extensive investment in Fibre Channel infrastructure, these data centers may at least consider FCoE. Much will depend upon budgets, planned changes and other factors. Unless a planned data center project was already funded and underway, most transitions to FCoE will likely begin in areas where new servers and switches are added or updated. However, with a new data center, it may be easier to justify moving to Fibre Channel over Ethernet from the beginning.

As mentioned above, one of the benefits of FCoE will be a reduction in required cable plant. Excessive cabling can impede air flow and cooling, making the data center less energy-efficient. With FCoE, less cable means potentially better air flow and more efficient cooling. Consolidation and virtualization solutions also improve energy efficiency and can be prime opportunities to present customers with new FCoE options. These scenarios offer VARs the opportunity to provide valuable assistance to their customers on a variety of technologies and solutions.

Small and medium-sized data centers

The choice between FCoE and iSCSI in data centers at SMBs will depend on budget, customer IT staff skill set and application requirements. For most applications in SMB data center environments, iSCSI will satisfy the performance requirements at a more modest price than Fibre Channel or FCoE. Once again, a VAR can assist customers in determining the correct technology that best meets their application and business requirements.

Remote office locations

For remote offices, iSCSI will most often be the best choice. iSCSI offers native IP routing, spanning longer distances than FCoE, and is less expensive. FCoE could work, but check the price differential and long-term requirements before making a final decision between the two technologies.

VARs will need to carefully weigh competing claims from various vendors. It should come as no surprise that vendors with predominant expertise in the Ethernet market are promoting FCoE, while vendors more focused on Fibre Channel are taking a more measured approach. Storage vendors will also be a gating factor in adoption as they work to include FCoE connectivity directly in their products.

FCoE is the next evolution of Fibre Channel, allowing organizations to integrate Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks at a measured pace with a road map for investment protection. Fibre Channel over Ethernet will eventually allow organizations to consolidate their server I/O and network traffic, saving both capital and operating expense. Over time, FCoE will undoubtedly provide key benefits to the right customers, becoming an important tool in the data center, especially with consolidation, virtualization and energy efficiency. In the meantime, VARs can watch vendors beat one another senseless with competing claims while providing valuable consultation to their customers who either want to prepare for it or just investigate it.

About the author

Steve Nowack is an IT consultant with experience in channel relationships and a specialty in storage systems. Prior to working as a consultant, he worked in both vendor and IT organization environments. He has a bachelor's degree in information systems and marketing, a master's degree in telecommunications and finance, and an MBA with an emphasis on marketing and international business, all from the University of Colorado. He can be reached at sgnowack@yahoo.com.

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