Early Fibre Channel Over Ethernet Products: Optimists, Pessimists Abound

Fibre Channel

FCoE 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 wide-area networks 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-Gbps Ethernet network, called Enhanced Ethernet, which was designed to ensure that no data frames are lost during transmission.

With FCoE, servers will use 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.

Cisco Systems, the market's top networking switch vendor, is leading the early charge to bring FCoE to market.

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Jackie Ross, vide president of marketing for Cisco's Server Access and Virtualization Business Unit, said the meeting of the T11 Committee, which is responsible for developing the FCoE standard and which is chaired by Cisco, expects the technical completion will be passed by the committee this month. Such a move would signal that there will be no more technological changes, Ross said, paving the way for the standard to be complete by next June, Ross said.

In the meantime, Ross said, customers are not waiting, which is why Cisco and some of its partners are already implementing FCoE in their new products. The vendors have done "plug-fests" to make sure the products work as promised, he said.

That partner ecosystem includes CNA vendors QLogic, Emulex and Intel; storage vendors such as NetApp, EMC and 3Par; facilities vendors such as APC and Panduit; and Dell, Ross 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 of the storage vendor.

Georgens said he is bullish on FCoE because the technology is well-developed, the economics are compelling, and the ease of use in 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 with 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.

H.K. Desai, chairman and CEO of QLogic, said he expects FCoE to be implemented quickly because of how much it relies on existing technologies.

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

Others are also showing their early support of FCoE. EMC, for instance, qualified Emulex's FCoE CNAs across its Connectrix NEX-5020 FCoE switch and its Clariion, Celerra and Symmetrix storage arrays.

NetApp, meanwhile, qualified Emulex's CNAs with its native FCoE and native Fibre Channel storage arrays.

Other vendors, however, while expressing support for FCoE, were less inclined to offer products until the standard is finalized.

Kianoosh Naghshineh, president and CEO of switch vendor Chelsio Communications, for instance, said in an e-mailed response to questions from ChannelWeb that FCoE is in a demo phase now and that there are no production-worthy products available.

Marty Lans, senior director of data center marketing at Brocade Communications, Cisco's archrival 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.

"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 than Lans about how quickly the market will adopt FCoE.

"HP has no FCoE devices in customer hands, and anyone who does is dealing with a pre-standard 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."