Fibre Channel Over Ethernet Spec Advances

Fibre Channel

The new Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) specification, which was sent on Tuesday to the T11 Committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), is expected to be the next stage in unifying a number of different protocols into Ethernet in order to help simplify the data center while allowing customers to continue to use their existing Fibre Channel infrastructures, vendors and solution providers said.

Vendors working on the FCoE specification include Brocade Communications Systems, Cisco, EMC, Emulex, IBM, Intel, QLogic, Sun Microsystems and Nuova Systems.

Mike Smith, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Emulex, said the proposed specification, expected to be available in products by 2009, is aimed at converging the Fibre Channel and Ethernet standards in order to help users get the best of both.

The key driver for FCoE is the broad adoption of SANs, especially with the growth of sales of server blades, which typically do not have their own storage, and the growth of virtual servers, Smith said.

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Doug Ingraham, senior director of product management at Brocade, said FCoE will help consolidate and simplify data center infrastructures.

Currently, the typical enterprise-class server in the data center needs six adapters, including two storage adapters, two LAN adaptors, and two interprocessor communication adapters, Ingraham said. FCoE will allow the storage and LAN communications go over the same adaptors, he said.

With FCoE, customers will be able to run their Fibre Channel SANs over 10-Gbit Ethernet networks without the need to change those SANs, except for the addition of some type of Fibre Channel-to-Ethernet bridge, and without the loss of packets typical of TCP/IP networks, Ingraham said.

Those bridges would be either an appliance, an add-on module to existing Ethernet switches, or software embedded in the Ethernet switches, he said.

The FCoE standard would apply to any form of Ethernet, but for all practical purposes would depend mainly on 10-Gbit Ethernet, Smith said. "Users today are used to 4-Gbit Fibre Channel," he said. "10-Gbit Ethernet offers the bandwidth needed for combined traffic."

While the use of iSCSI to build SANs using TCP/IP networks is growing, they are mainly aimed at entry-level, lower-performance applications, Smith said.

"We see the adoption of iSCSI," he said. "But we also see demand in the market to take advantage of high-performance Fibre Channel and deploy it on the network."

Dhruv Gulati, executive vice president of Lilien Systems, a Larkspur, Calif.-based solution provider, said that while 10-Gbit Ethernet gear is only now starting to reach the market, having a protocol like FCoE ready to go as the high-speed Ethernet products become more of a mass market product makes sense.

"There will be issues with bandwidth management and quality of service," Gulati said. "Certain challenges with a single bandwidth. But a lot of money is being spent on separate Fibre Channel and Ethernet infrastructures."

The biggest advantage of running Fibre Channel natively over Ethernet is the potential for consolidation of IT infrastructures, Gulati said. "As companies consolidate to fewer servers, they will need to manage their I/O," he said. "The number of I/O slots in a server is limited. Taking the cost out of technology is a big advantage, as customers will not need to manage and support so many infrastructure pieces."

Taufik Ma, vice president of marketing for intelligent network products at Emulex, said that the adoption of 10-Gbit Ethernet has momentum, and that next year will see the technology start to ramp.

"Fibre Channel over Ethernet could be a driver for 10-Gbit Ethernet as companies want to converge their networks," Ma said. "Putting data on the network could drive companies to adopt 10-Gbit Ethernet faster."