Industry Catching On To Fibre Channel Over Ethernet

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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.

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

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