Industry Catching On To Fibre Channel Over Ethernet

Fibre Channel over Ethernet, a technology for combining Fibre Channel SANs across Ethernet-based networks, has been talked about for years as a low-cost alternative for expanding legacy SANs with a minimum investment in Fibre Channel technology.

Yet despite strong and growing storage vendor support for the technology and its potential for protecting existing investments in SAN technology, Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE, has yet to see widespread adoption among customers.

FCoE is a technology that allows both Fibre Channel data and Ethernet data to travel over a an Ethernet network infrastructure. It allows customers to combine their Fibre Channel and Ethernet traffic into a single high-speed network, taking advantage of their investments in 10-Gbit Ethernet while maintaining compatibility with their legacy Fibre Channel hardware.

Because FCoE encapsulates Fibre Channel signals in order to send them over Ethernet networks, it can be an attractive technology for customers with both Fibre Channel and Ethernet networks.

Sponsored post

An enhanced version of Ethernet, called Converged Enhanced Ethernet [CEE], is being developed by most of the top networking companies in part as a way to provide a stable network on which to run storage protocols such as FCoE.

Customers can use a converged network adaptor [CNA] in a server to replace Fibre Channel adaptors and Ethernet network interface cards. Multiple CNAs connect to a FCoE switch, which then directs the Fibre Channel traffic to the corporate SAN and the Ethernet traffic to the corporate LAN. Software can also be used to encapsulate the Fibre Channel signals to go over standard Ethernet NICs, but performance of the NICs would take a substantial hit.

One of the biggest uses of FCoE is in blade servers, where space on the motherboard is at a premium. Server vendors, including Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, are implementing FCoE as a way to replace Ethernet NICs and Fiber Channel adaptors.

Analyst firm Dell'Oro Group estimated that 150,000 servers, or 7 percent of all servers, shipped with FCoE-capable network connectors in the first quarter of 2011, driven primarily by shipments of HP blade servers using a FCoE LAN on motherboard solution from Emulex.

Bob Laliberte, an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, late last year said at a Storage Networking World presentation that 9 percent of 477 users surveyed about their networked storage strategies had already adopted FCoE, but that 26 percent expect to be using FCoE within two years. That compares with flat or falling adoption rates for other storage networking technologies except for 10-Gbit Ethernet, where adoption is expected to double to 48 percent of all users in two years.

FCoE offers 33 percent savings in terms of deployment costs and 50 percent savings in terms of power and cooling costs compared to traditional Fibre Channel and Ethernet networks, Laliberte also said.

Greg Schulz, founder and senior advisor at StorageIO, a Stillwater, Minn.-based analyst firm, said that FCoE adoption by enterprises is a matter of when, not if. However, Schulz said, the early adopters of the technology have tended to be in the midrange.

"Some very large companies are leveraging FCoE as rolling upgrades, or as pockets of activity around VMware or Hyper-V," he said. "Midrange customers have been mixing a number of FCoE switches with their IP switches. And when you look at the FCoE products available until now, it's been smaller switches like Cisco's Nexus. Many of these companies' environments are heavily influenced by Cisco, and Cisco is the biggest proponent of FCoE."

Next: FCoE And The Midrange

Midrange companies typically maintain separate networks for Fiber Channel and Ethernet because of the way their IT departments are organized or managed, Schulz said. And in more and more of those cases, they are electing to use FCoE for both, he said.

"They may have separate LAN and SAN environments, but they like the idea of managing them in a converged way," he said. "So they may have bought Nexus switches for the LAN and Nexus switches for the SAN, and plan to converge them together. Or they may have environments where the LAN and SAN teams work together. If they work together, they start to realize the benefits of FCoE."

Cisco and its rival, Brocade are both pushing FCoE technology from the switch side, with Cisco coming at it from the LAN side and Brocade from the SAN side, Schulz said.

"Cisco has more traction, and has been doing more to jumpstart this market, with Brocade jumping up and down and saying they're here, too," he said. "But it's still early in the game. There's plenty of room for Brocade to take its place."

On the CNA side, both Emulex and QLogic are battling in the first round for FCoE dominance, Schulz said. Other networking companies to watch include PMC-Sierra, Mellanox-Voltaire, Huawei, Avaya, Ciena, and HP-3Com, most of which use chips from QLogic and Emulex, he said.

Cisco was the first company to ship FCoE switches with its Nexus 5000 switches in June of 2008, and later added the Nexus 2000 Switches to extend the unified fabric. Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) uses FCoE to unite SAN and LAN traffic in a unified fabric.

According to a Cisco spokesperson, about 30 percent of the company's Nexus 5000 switches are FCoE-enabled. A company spokesperson said Cisco expects FCoE to continue to gain ground because of cost savings from a need for fewer cables, switches, and adapters; power cost savings; and the fact that FCoE technology is non-disruptive.

Brocade offers a complete end-to-end FCoE server I/O consolidation solution for allowing storage traffic and networking traffic to be transported onto common lossless Ethernet links. Companies can deploy top-of-rack solutions using Brocade VDX 6720 and Brocade 8000 switches with Brocade CNAs, or deploy end-of-row solutions using Brocade FCoE blades in the company's DCX Backbones. The company also provides the Brocade Data Center Fabric Manager software for unifying the management of existing Fibre Channel SANs and new FCoE resources.

A Brocade spokesperson said the company's FCoE revenue is pretty modest but showing good growth year-over-year. However, the spokesperson said, Fibre Channel still has a cost advantage over FCoE.

Brocade expects FCoE adoption for most companies to start with top-of-rack switches, and then move to the use of FCoE blades in networking backbone switches, with further larger configurations happening as networking Layer 2 multi-pathing standards become available.

Emulex offers FCoE CNAs as well as chipsets to build FCoE-enabled LAN-on-motherboard connectors for servers and network adaptors produced by HP, IBM, Cisco, and Dell.

Shaun Walsh, vice president of marketing for Emulex, said his company expects FCoE to account for about 25 percent of all storage connections by 2013, based on information from analyst firms such as Dell'Oro Group and Crehan Research. At that time, Walsh said, the FCoE host connectivity market could reach about $200 million, compared to $700 million for the Fibre Channel host connectivity market.

Next: Looking At FCoE From The Channel

Looking forward, Walsh said that new multi-hop FCoE switching solutions announced by Cisco, Brocade, and Juniper in the second quarter of 2011, which allow any port on their switches to be either Fibre Channel, IP, or converged Ethernet, will be a key driver of FCoE.

NetApp currently supports FCoE with its FAS2050, FAS3000 series, FAS6000 series, and V-Series of storage appliances, although FCoE accounts for a small percentage of customer connections when compared to Fibre Channel, iSCSI, NFS, and CIFS, said Mike McNamara, senior manager of SAN product marketing and alliances.

McNamara said 2012 and beyond will see a faster ramping of FCoE as most storage vendors offer the technology, more customers start to offer public references for it, and software-based, LAN-on-motherboard, and 10-Gbit Ethernet FCoE options become more prevalent. The growth of virtualized and cloud environments will also drive adoption of converged infrastructures like FCoE, he said.

Dell supports FCoE through its Dell Compellent Storage Center SAN arrays. A Dell spokesperson said a relatively small number of customers use FCoE, but that FCoE will grow in importance as a high-performance networking option as more companies adopt a converged network architecture and leverage their existing investment, training or expertise in Fibre Channel networks.

FCoE is still at the conversation stage for most customers, many of whom look at it as a primary reason to adopt 10-Gbit Ethernet networking technology, said Keith Norbie, vice president of sales at Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider.

"Customers are saying, 'If we're going to 10-Gbit, what are we going to do with it? Ethernet LAN traffic won't fill it, so why not go with FCoE?'" Norbie said.

Greg Knieriemen, vice president of marketing at Chi Corp., a Cleveland, Ohio-based solution provider, said that customers are talking about converged infrastructures as a way to shrink their data center footprints, consolidate servers and storage, and prepare for new generations of data centers.

However, Knieriemen said, those customers are not talking about specific converged infrastructures such as FCoE. Instead, he said, Chi will bring FCoE into the discussion depending on requirements or vendor options.

"If it's a traditional Fibre Channel shop, the discussion tends towards extending Fibre Channel, and the cost of the technology," he said. "In some shops, it becomes a Holy War between Fibre Channel and Ethernet, and FCoE takes the edge off the Fibre Channel diehards."

FCoE has a great future, Knieriemen said. "But it's not like the adoption of deduplication, where a light comes on in the customer's head when he thinks of the benefits," he said.

However, Knieriemen said, the adoption of FCoE will be stronger and faster than that of iSCSI.

"iSCSI had a long ramp until it was accepted by the industry," he said. "FCoE will have a faster uptake because of customer demands for converging their infrastructure. When iSCSI first came out, there was no infrastructure driver for it. It was just another alternative. But customers are demanding converged infrastructures."