Mixed enterprise environments could make FCoE a winner

Written By: Peter Williams
Published:
Content Copyright © 2009 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

Standards come and
go, and some never have lift off; but I think FCoE is one that will ramp up—as evidently does QLogic. The starting point is that the FCoE standard is here,
backed by some products, and has been tried and tested. It is now beginning to
ship.

What does it do?
It does what it says on the tin—sends FC traffic over Ethernet cables
alongside the Ethernet traffic. This is an acknowledgment that FC is not going
away any time soon because what it does not
do is any convergence of FC format to, say, IP (but Ethernet will deal with IP
traffic as well).

So how does it
help? Major reasons why FCoE will grow are cost and flexibility—and
specifically for the larger organisations carrying both an FC network and an
Ethernet one. It is not a matter of the FCoE converged adaptors being low cost—they certainly cost more than Ethernet NICs if not FC HBAs—but that using the technology will
allow a simplification of an organisation’s physical networking infrastructure.

Perhaps the
biggest deal in this is that a single set of cabling to cover both network types
suddenly becomes practical. Existing cabling costs may not immediately be reduced
because that money has already been spent; but when a decision to extend or
change the network occurs, the user knows that 10Gb Ethernet copper cabling with
converged adaptors covers most future eventualities—and costly FC cabling is rendered
obsolete.

The adaptor uses a single server port to
handle both 10Gb Ethernet and FC HBA traffic, so this potentially frees up plenty of comms slots on
each server; then the mixed traffic behind it will share one cable instead of needing
two. There is also a potential for serious power savings in this.

Tell-tale signs of
take-up include IBM and HP both announcing FCoE in the last couple of weeks. Scott
Genereux, senior VP of worldwide sales at FCoE adaptor provider QLogic, was
very bullish when I spoke to him last week, when he said: “We see every major
storage vendor supporting FCoE by the end of the calendar year.” (Of course, if
this fails to materialise as expected then the scope for infrastructure savings
will be considerably reduced.)

His view was that
a change of attitude began when QLogic succeeded in shrinking the technology
onto its single chip converged network adaptor (CNA). He expects QLogic to be the
major beneficiary of the early takeup because, as I reported in April, it has a head start with its 8100 Series CNAs. These combine 10Gb
Ethernet with FC at the full 10Gb speed (so above 8Gb FC) partly achieved
through the in-built FCoE offload engine.

Genereux said IBM was
going with QLogic, although the situation with HP was not as clear.

It is in the data
centre that Genereux sees the biggest plus. “One person can manage both FC and
Ethernet instead of two,” he said. However, this will only be entirely true if
the whole FC infrastructure is taken across to FCoE—meaning an upfront cost before
the expected ongoing savings. In that situation QLogic Ethernet users will find
the common APIs and management tools familiar.

Meanwhile he suspected that there
was a higher comfort factor over the security of FC than IP on Ethernet, an
argument for not converging the
formats at this time.

QLogic has
certainly made a major commitment and has begun shipping its CNA to the
channel. (In EMEA volume shipments are due to start by the end of next
month.) Genereux said this was backed by
training for its channel partners, not least because they needed to understand and explain to end users where the value of such a switchover would come
from.

Some will see FCoE
as a short-term move. On the other hand, the death of FC itself has been
forecast for a while and I see little sign of this. FCoE might actually prove a
useful half-way house; once an Ethernet infrastructure has completely replaced
FC, then the full move away from FC will become a less daunting task.

Who knows, anyway,
if a completely new mega-advanced standard, needing different cabling again,
might emerge in due course. If everyone, for some reason, went for it, it would
still be easier to convert from one network than two. So the lack of
convergence right now is not, to me, a huge deal.

Call me a cynic,
but I would also not be surprised if some of QLogic’s competitors (for instance
FC-lovers Brocade and Cisco or arch-competitor Emulex) were playing down FCoE’s
potential—simply because QLogic has a technology lead right now.

Not
that QLogic is so fool-hardy as to put all its eggs in one basket. Genereux realises iSCSI will be more popular at the SMB end; it has its own solutions there and recently purchased Netxan which supplies an Ethernet NIC with an IP offload
engine. The company is also working hard with Infiniband for high performance
server clusters (a market in which it has reached the number two supplier spot).

There is no denying QLogic is also considering a 16Gb FC HBA; if the demand proves
to be there that only demonstrates greater FC longevity than some predict. By
the same token, Ethernet could go to 40 or 100Gb.

Anyway
I am not a betting man, but I think FCoE will do pretty well in the next few
years—starting about now.