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Jumping The Gun

When the Fibre Channel over Ethernet standard is ratified next year, it could mark the official beginning of the next stage of development for the storage industry. But it's not without its controversy.

Fibre Channel

Some vendors just couldn't wait for the final seal of approval on the FCoE standard and have rolled out new products they say will be compatible with the standard once it is ratified. Their decision has some rivals crying foul about the risks of investing in new technology before the standards are set in stone.

List Of Who's In, Who's Not
Cisco NetApp QLogic, Emulex
Brocade HP ProCurve
• Juniper
• Chelsio
Nearly evey vendor in the Fibre Channel market, as well as most server vendors, plan to be a part of the move to FCoE.

Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif.; QLogic Corp., Aliso Viejo, Calif.; Emulex Corp., Costa Mesa, Calif.; and NetApp, Sunnyvale, Calif., are in the we-can't-wait camp, all coming out last month with new products they say are not only compatible with the latest revision of the FCoE standard but will remain compatible with FCoE when the final standard is ratified early next year.

Brocade Communications Systems Inc., San Jose, and HP ProCurve, Palo Alto, Calif., are in the latter camp, saying the industry should wait for the standard to be finalized.

How do solution providers feel about vendors "jumping the gun?" Greg Knieriemen, vice president of marketing at Chi Corp., a Cleveland-based solution provider, said he expects no issues with products from NetApp.

"I can't imagine a scenario where NetApp would release a product that couldn't be upgraded to meet the standard," Knieriemen said. "Don't forget, this happened with iSCSI, too. The manufacturers came out with products before it was ratified, and no problems."

When Fibre Channel first came to market a decade ago, interoperability between the different vendors' products was a major issue that took a couple years to solve. But when iSCSI arrived a few years back, there were few such issues as it was based on the well-established IP and Ethernet protocols.

FCoE is an attempt to overcome the shortcomings of the two primary technologies for building storage networks: Fibre Channel and iSCSI.

Fibre Channel is a high-performance storage networking technology with a full range of data reliability and security features. Even so, its performance still lags that of 10-Gigabit Ethernet, and will lag even further as 40-Gbps and 100-Gbps Ethernet are introduced to market over the next few years.

More important, however, is Fibre Channel's six-mile distance limitation, which forces customers to employ IP gateways that are costly in terms of price and performance overhead in order to extend Fibre Channel beyond a small campus or to connect multiple Fibre Channel SANs.

The second is iSCSI, which connects SCSI hosts and storage devices natively to each other over IP networks to form low-cost storage networks.

The low cost and widespread availability of iSCSI has helped popularize it in small and midsize businesses that couldn't otherwise afford the cost of implementing Fibre Channel, as well as in enterprises for consolidating remote office or branch office data.

However, since it is based on IP networks, iSCSI suffers from a high performance overhead and does not include the security and management features of Fibre Channel.

Cisco, the market's top networking switch vendor, is leading the early charge to bring FCoE to market. It has set up a partner ecosystem that includes converged network adapter developers QLogic, Emulex and Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif.; storage vendors such as NetApp, EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass.; and 3Par Inc., Fremont, Calif.; facilities vendors such as APC Corp., West Kingston, R.I.; and Panduit Corp., Tinley Park, Ill.; and Dell Inc., Round Rock, Texas.

Prem Jain, senior vice president of Cisco's Server Access Virtualization Business Unit, said that in his 30 years in the industry, this is the first time he has seen so many partners come together on a new technology.

Customers need to implement FCoE as quickly as possible in order to consolidate servers and cut the number of cables and separate adapter cards used, Jain said. While in general it is a good idea to ensure that standards are ratified before introducing new technology, he noted, the fact is that all the major players in the storage infrastructure market, including rival Brocade, have been involved in preparing FCoE.

"The hardware was already frozen a long time ago," he said. "If changes occur now, they can be adopted with software to meet the standard."

Marty Lans, senior director of data center marketing at Brocade, Cisco's rival in the storage networking market, said his company is working on FCoE because of the converged networking potential. "But the standards are not in place," Lans said. "The last thing a data center guy wants to hear is, 'There are changes.' Cisco does not have a lot of experience with the storage guys, but the storage guys have to deal with these issues."

Those storage guys will need nudging before wholeheartedly accepting FCoE, Lans said.

Next: No Replacing Fibre Channel "No matter how excited we get, you can't replace Fibre Channel on the core SAN until the storage guys have native FCoE on their arrays," he said. "They're conservatives and take a while to move."

Lin Nease, director of emerging business for switch vendor HP ProCurve, was more blunt about how quickly the market will adopt FCoE.

"HP has no FCoE devices in customer hands, and anyone who does is dealing with a prestandard version," Nease said. "It will be a few years before storage devices work with FCoE. And even when the standard is finalized, there will still be a lot of engineering issues with security and how to handle dropped packets."

Bobby Guhasarkar, senior manager of product marketing for Juniper Networks Inc's Ethernet Platforms business group, said that "certain vendors" are incented from a business standpoint to push FCoE to get into businesses they haven't really been into yet.

"Juniper religiously follows standards and when they get ratified [next year], Juniper will look to implement it in our Ethernet switches,' Guhasarkar said. Of the storage vendors working on FCoE, NetApp is expected to be the first to ship storage arrays with native FCoE connectivity, said Tom Georgens, president and COO.

Georgens said he is bullish on FCoE because the technology is well developed, the economics are compelling, and the ease of use of working with Ethernet is three orders of magnitude easier than working with Fibre Channel.

Running both Fibre Channel and Ethernet over a converged network simplifies data center infrastructures when compared to running separate networks, Georgens said. However, he said, he expects the adoption of FCoE to be gradual as data center administrators evaluate their environments and how they are changing.

"If I were building a new data center today, given that I will already be making a big investment in Ethernet, I'd put in FCoE," Georgens said. "Instead of running to invest in new technology as it comes to market, it makes more sense to invest in new infrastructure as you build out from a cost point."

H.K. Desai, chairman and CEO of QLogic, said he expects FCoE to be implemented quickly compared with how Ethernet and Fibre Channel caught on because there is a minimum of change required to existing infrastructures.

Desai said he expects server OEMs to start offering servers with first-generation converged network adapters by year-end, with the second generation becoming available in early 2009. The difference between the two is the higher level of chip integration in the second-generation products, he said.

Even with the advent of FCoE, Desai said vendors such as QLogic will continue to invest in traditional Fibre Channel. The company just released its first 8-Gbps Fibre Channel host-bus adapter, and is continuing to invest in 16-Gbit Fibre channel.

"We're investing for a couple years down the road," he said. "If FCoE takes hold, we will look again at 16-Gbit Fibre Channel. But I don't see any changes in Fibre Channel over the next two to three years."

FCoE is also attractive to server vendors which, for the most part, are waiting for standards.

Doug Balog, vice president of modular development at IBM Corp., said he expects IBM to have x86-based and Power-based servers with FCoE ready in 2009.

"It's important to start with standards," Balog said. "You'll see some vendors come out with products this year for proof-of-concept. But they won't be standard. IBM waits for standards."

FCoE will be an important tool in the data center, especially with blade servers, but going to market too early will actually result in increased cables and patches and management time, said Mike Kendall, worldwide manager for HP Virtual Connect.

"HP's efforts are less focused on such early efforts and more on using FCoE to further consolidate cabling and systems management choices on top of the current capabilities of BladeSystem [servers]," Kendall said.

But Chi's Knieriemen said he can't wait for FCoE to be available. "Midrange to enterprise companies who made an investment in Fibre Channel can now expand on it," he said. "We will be able to help them connect Fibre Channel SANs with FCoE at prices that are lower than other technologies today."

If FCoE can help connect SANs over a WAN at a lower price than some other protocol like Fibre Channel over IP, it might eventually win over iSCSI or 8-Gbps Fibre Channel, said Dan Carson, vice president of marketing and business development at Open Systems Solutions, a Willow Grove, Pa.-based solution provider.

"But I don't know the ROI," Carson said. "I've had a lot more people ask for 8-Gbit Fibre Channel than FCoE. "

Next: Oh, Those Acronyms. Here's What FCoE Does Oh, Those Acronyms. Here's What FCoE Does

Fibre Channel over Ethernet allows Fibre Channel SANs and devices to connect to each other over Ethernet-based networks and share data without modifying the existing storage infrastructure. This allows the building of WANs using Ethernet, which is more common and less expensive for long-distance networking than Fibre Channel.

With FCoE, native Fibre Channel frames are encapsulated into Ethernet frames for sending over a new type of 10-Gbit Ethernet network that was designed to ensure that no data frames are lost during transmission.

That new Ethernet is called many things, depending on who is talking. IBM and Brocade use the IEEE term, Converged Enhanced Ethernet, although it is often commonly written as Convergence Enhanced Ethernet. Cisco calls it Data Center Ethernet. QLogic calls it Enhanced Ethernet. Others call it lossless Ethernet.

"Eventually, everything will shake out and everyone will call it the same thing," said Rob Davis, vice president of advanced technologies at QLogic.

The new Ethernet differs from traditional Ethernet in that it is a lossless technology. Ethernet packetizes data for transmitting over the cable and can occasionally drop a packet and need to resend it, which typically does not impact LAN performance. Fibre Channel does not allow lost packets, so FCoE uses Enhanced Ethernet instead of standard Ethernet.

FCoE is touted as a low-cost, high-performance alternative to Fibre Channel or InfiniBand. However, that doesn't mean there is no cost to adopting FCoE, which will still require new equipment. With FCoE, servers will require converged network adapters, or CNAs, in place of Fibre Channel host-bus adapters. The CNAs send both Fibre Channel and Ethernet signals to the switch, which then sends the Fibre Channel signals to the Fibre Channel storage devices or SANs. Networking switches will also require a change, either to new switches or new modules or blades to existing switches, that will allow them to carry the converged networking/ storage data in their native formats.

For that reason, vendors suggest that, instead of ripping and replacing existing networks with FCoE, it be added as new data center buildouts take place.

—Joseph F. Kovar

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