Compelled by the prevalence of Ethernet and its enhancements, and the success and simplicity of iSCSI, Brocade and Cisco have embarked on bringing Ethernet into the well-guarded FC domain via Fibre Channel over Ethernet. FCoE is a T11 standard expected to be ratified later in the year. It uses Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE) -- Cisco calls it Data Center Ethernet (DCE) -- as the physical network transport to deliver Fibre Channel payloads. However, unlike its Ethernet brethren, it's lossless and appears as native Fibre Channel to the operating system and apps. Unlike iSCSI, it's not routable and is designed as a low-latency, high-performance Layer 2 data center protocol.

The value proposition of FCoE and converged Ethernet is lower infrastructure cost realized by simplifying cabling and reducing the number of adapters from two host bus adapters (HBAs) and two network interface cards (NICs) to two redundant Converged Network Adapters (CNAs) through which the converged local-area network (LAN) and FC traffic traverses. Instead of connecting two NICs to an Ethernet switch and two HBAs to a Fibre Channel switch, the two CNAs terminate into a CEE/DCE-capable switch that delivers Ethernet traffic to the LAN and FC traffic to the SAN. Although FCoE and CEE/DCE are expected to eventually be used from core to edge, its initial use is primarily at the access layer to connect servers to CEE/DCE-capable switches.

Both Brocade and Cisco

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are committed to FCoE, but with different strategies. Brocade won't ship Converged Enhanced Ethernet products until the standard is ratified; at that point, Brocade will support FCoE and CEE in its DCX Backbone via new blades. Older Brocade Fibre Channel products, such as the 48000 Director, will connect through the DCX Backbone or a new top-of-rack switch to interface with CEE components.

With the Nexus 5000 Series top-of-rack switch, Cisco is the first vendor to offer a pre-standard FCoE product. For the MDS 9500 director family, as well as the Nexus 2000 Series Fabric Extenders and Nexus 7000 Series switches, DCE and FCoE support won't be available until standard ratification, similar to Brocade's plans.

Overall, Cisco has a more coherent product strategy to support a unified data center protocol and has been working on it for the past five years. With the Nexus 7000 core switch and its formidable 15 Tbps planned throughput designed to support 100 Gbps Ethernet, its unified NX-OS operating system that's used by both the MDS 9000 family and the new Nexus platform, and its Data Center 3.0 initiative to unify computing systems, Cisco is amazingly ready for the battle for the unified data center. On the other hand, with the recent acquisition of Foundry Networks Inc., Brocade isn't standing still and, despite integration challenges, a legion of loyal Brocade and Foundry customers are likely to side with Brocade. Even though the battle has begun, broad adoption of CEE isn't expected until late 2010. "With the exception of some early adopters, broader adoption of CEE won't happen until 18 to 24 months from now," said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at StorageIO Group in Stillwater, Minn.

This was first published in June 2009

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