Fibre Channel over Ethernet has IT team adjusting to converged network

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) converged network has clinic joining Ethernet network and Fibre Channel storage groups, and moving to Fibre Channel switches from Brocade.

For the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, a healthcare provider with more than 350 doctors practicing at 19 locations throughout the greater Houston area, the greatest challenge in implementing Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) was adjusting to the changes associated with the shift to a converged network infrastructure.

Like many organizations, the Kelsey-Seybold Clinic has separate Ethernet network and Fibre Channel storage (FC storage) teams. Converging Fiber Channel and Ethernet would mean that LAN and SAN traffic could not only share the same 10 Gigabit Ethernet ( 10 GbE) network, but that the two teams would need to work together more closely than ever before.

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Fibre Channel over Ethernet has IT team adjusting to converged network

But the changes cut deeper than LAN and SAN. As part of the move to FCoE, Kelsey-Seybold Clinic decided to switch its network core from Cisco Systems Inc. to Brocade Communications Systems Inc. The clinic now uses Fibre Channel switches from Brocade, as well as Ethernet switches that Brocade picked up when it acquired Foundry Networks Inc.

"Frankly, my bigger challenge is the fact that we're no longer a pure Cisco environment," said Martin Littmann, Kelsey-Seybold Clinic's director of IT systems. "Guys who are Cisco bigots now have to work in the Brocade and Foundry space for IP networking, not just Fibre Channel over Ethernet."

Tony Taylor, the manager of enterprise network services, had more than a dozen years of hands-on experience with Cisco's Ethernet-based equipment and had taken the time and initiative to become certified to work with it.

"It was a huge sore spot for me personally, and it was certainly a much bigger sore spot for my team," Taylor admitted. "We've had many conversations about how they don't feel they're being represented properly. So, it has certainly been challenging."

But Taylor was involved in the decision-making process every step of the way and understood the big-picture goal. Littmann had made a point of trying to include as many staffers as possible in meetings and discussions, and he encouraged them to ask as many questions of the vendors as they wanted.

"We did that in a very challenging way, meaning we're willing to call BS on the vendors and say, 'No, that's not right,'" Littman said. "We did a lot of research ourselves, for example, to compare what people said about Cisco, what Cisco said about Brocade and what Brocade said about Cisco."

Colocation data center migration adds to project concerns

But the FCoE project extended beyond the switches. It coincided with Kelsey-Seybold's migration to a colocation data center at Fibertown LLC's Tier IV-designed data center in Bryan, Texas, approximately 100 miles northwest of Houston and away from the hurricane zone. The greenfield scenario presents a golden opportunity for the 60-year-old company to standardize and purchase as much of its new equipment and services as possible from a single vendor.

Last year, the IT team spent almost six months evaluating data storage options, including systems from Hitachi Data Systems Corp., its primary enterprise storage provider, and EMC Corp., from which it used a small amount of storage. But the clinic eventually went with IBM, in large part because it could best approximate the one-stop shop that Kelsey-Seybold wanted.

Each of the storage vendors resell Brocade and Cisco gear, but Littmann especially liked that IBM rebrands the Brocade switches and services them as well as the storage. IBM resells but does not rebrand the Cisco equipment, so service and support would go through Cisco rather than IBM.

"It almost came down to a coin toss at the end" between Brocade and Cisco, Littmann said. "We decided that we could go with either solution."

From a technical perspective, Taylor viewed Fibre Channel as the more important piece of the FCoE equation and Ethernet as more of a commodity. The team judged that Brocade had carved out a solid enough stake in the IP switching space with its acquisition of Foundry Networks. Plus, Kelsey-Seybold Clinic already had a significant investment in Brocade's smaller FC fabric switches.

Kelsey-Seybold had given strong consideration to Cisco's core switches, including its Nexus 7000 and the Fibre Channel-based MDS switch, but the IT team ultimately settled on the Brocade options, including the DCX Backbone, which IBM rebrands as the SAN768B.

"We felt that the DCX was a little more mature," Taylor said. "Certainly from my perspective, being a Cisco guy growing up, it was a difficult decision. But we felt that putting this all underneath the IBM umbrella made sense for us collectively across the business."

The IT team has yet to resolve the roles and responsibilities of the various team members with respect to Fibre Channel over Ethernet, but they're leaning toward giving the network team responsibility for managing the entire network, according to Littmann. He said he anticipates no staff changes for the storage, server and network teams, which totals 22 members. The entire 140-person IT staff serves approximately 3,900 end users and 5,000 endpoints.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet: Technology hurdles

Viewed against the backdrop of the Brocade-Cisco showdown, any technology hurdles associated with the shift to FCoE have almost paled in comparison. To get 10 GbE, Kelsey-Seybold Clinic tapped into a dark fiber ring in the Houston metro area and lit services with several providers to get to Bryan, Texas.

The IT team put in new copper and OM3 fiber optic cable at the colocation facility, although far less than it would have needed with a traditional storage network. It also worked to learn the vendor-specific nuances of its new IBM servers, switches and storage systems, as well as the some of the finer points of Fibre Channel over Ethernert.

"Whether you use Brocade or you use Cisco or whomever, FCoE is FCoE," said Chris Breaux, manager of enterprise servers and storage at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. "Training the network team to learn Fibre Channel and training the storage team to learn Ethernet is probably the biggest challenge, and how we bring those two together for one cohesive solution."

Every so often, the team encounters the sorts of support issues that crop up for early adopters. For instance, Kelsey-Seybold's Intel-based servers were equipped with Brocade converged network adapters (CNAs), but its IBM System p servers aren't yet certified to work with the Brocade CNAs, so it had to go with QLogic Corp. CNAs, host bus adapters (HBAs) and network interface cards (NICs).

"We'll go back and retrofit those systems with the proper CNAs once they get certified," Breaux said. "To get all of our equipment on a standard and like-for-like platform will help with future administration, especially since we're about two hours away from the data center."

Kelsey-Seybold's IT team isn't bothered that current technical limitations prevent the clinic from going FCoE beyond its four eight-slot IBM SAN768B/Brocade DCX Backbone switches, equipped with FCoE 10-24 blades. Between the DCX core and the IBM storage, the clinic runs 8 Gbps FC to its storage while the IP traffic splits off to Ethernet switches.

"The DCXs support both FCoE and Fibre Channel, so we take advantage of those different type of ports inside of the switch," Breaux said. "We're not losing anything. We get both technologies inside of one chassis."

Collaboration is key

Kelsey-Seybold Clinic currently uses Fibre Channel over Ethernet in production only in the systems used by its internal technical teams. Plans call for the rollout to clinical applications in the coming months. The IT department hopes to complete the move from its three Houston-based data centers to Bryan next year.

In the meantime, the network team has shined during the implementation phase, leaving any grumbling behind closed doors, according to Taylor. Both Taylor and Breaux agree that the collaborative decision-making process has been the key to the project's success.

"There are too many shops that we know where somebody at the top or somebody at the side got somebody at the top to say, 'This is the way we're going. I don't care how you feel about it,'" Littman said. "By the time we got to the decision being made, people knew what it was and why it was being made, and they certainly couldn't say they didn't have a part in the discussion. It's all about setting expectations."
This was first published in August 2010

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