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Infrastructure consolidation projects: FCoE and backbone implementation

Learn the steps of an infrastructure consolidation project, including determining whether customers are good candidates for an FCoE or backplane implementation project, ROI analysis and initial design.

Many IT projects owe their start to a distinctly different technology. You start out talking to a customer about one thing, and from there the discussion can branch off into another area that they may not have been thinking about. Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) can be such a catalyst technology for other implementation projects at a customer site. You might start out talking to a customer about FCoE and find that it makes complete sense to broaden the discussion to infrastructure consolidation, which can lead to additional work for you.

But before you approach a customer about FCoE specifically or infrastructure consolidation in general, there's a little bit of work required, mostly investigatory in nature, at least at the outset. It's simple: Walk through the customer's data center and look at cable conditions going to the rack. If you see problems with the consumption of slot space in the servers themselves and a proliferation of switches, as well as a server virtualization rollout, these are all good indicators that the customer could benefit from an infrastructure consolidation project -- possibly one centered around FCoE.

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The status of FCoE

At this point, it may be worthwhile to build an ROI model for the customer as well as an initial plan. I find that when resellers and suppliers walk in with a well-thought-out straw-man type of plan prior to any serious conversations with the customer, the chance that the customer will be receptive to the project increases considerably. You don't need to spend hours on this, but there should be enough detail to show to the customer that you have done your homework, spent the time preparing and are actually thinking about how you can make life easier for them.

In that initial design, you should include a backbone replacement plan if it makes sense too, and an FCoE implementation plan. Determining whether a backbone upgrade makes sense for your customer depends in large part on their size and what they are currently doing for storage interconnect. If it's a growing company and its infrastructure is built mostly on switches, integrating and managing interswitch links (ISLs) may be costly and overwhelming. Additionally, if the customer has specific cable connection requirements or is using standalone appliances for SAN extension, encryption or dark fiber, those factors could also play into a backbone strategy.

Both switch sprawl and connectivity sprawl can be addressed by implementing a backbone architecture that uses blades instead of switches to provide interconnectivity. A blade-based backbone architecture also provides the customer with greater flexibility when it comes to further expansion and integration of new technologies. Additional port count can be added by inserting a blade; there are no ISL connections to remap. New technologies like 8Gbps Fibre Channel (or even FCoE) can be added as they become available.

While backbone consolidation will make sense for some customers, a top-of-rack consolidation will have broader appeal, since it's where cable and card growth is most out of control, especially in virtualized environments. The typical design uses a top-of-rack switch that has ports for connectivity to the Fibre Channel SAN for storage connectivity and IP ports that connect to the Ethernet IP core for non-storage traffic.

You'd install two (for redundancy) FCoE adapters, called converged network adapters (CNAs), into the servers in the rack. These cards then connect into the top-of-rack switch via twinaxial cables, and both storage and IP traffic run across them. Today these cables are expensive and designed for short runs, which is ideal for this top-of-rack FCoE configuration.

As you walk through the initial design and ROI analysis of an FCoE implementation project with the customer, the key focus initially should be the reduction of cable count within the rack and freed-up space within the servers. In a virtual host environment, it's not uncommon to find two or more quad 1 Gigabit Ethernet port cards and two storage adapters, for a minimum of 10 cables per server and four cards. Over the long term, cutting those counts in half is going to save the customer hardware, power and cooling costs, and it will reduce the amount of time they spend managing the infrastructure. Presenting these infrastructure consolidation options to your customer will help move you to the trusted advisor status that we all want to achieve.

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.

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