| Fibre Channel over Ethernet is speeding along the certification path, and now is the time to determine what it can do for you.
The Ethernet part of the protocol isn't just any Ethernet, but a special, still-to-be-ratified Data Center Ethernet (DCE). To make Ethernet suitable for Fibre Channel transport, the 802.1Q IEEE standard is being modified to accommodate data center traffic to improve its priority traffic flow and allow it to operate in a lossless manner (no dropped packets).
The goal is to deliver FC a different network protocol leveraging an Ethernet fabric, while maintaining the same or better performance that Fibre Channel-only networks have enjoyed. Based on the IEEE modifications currently being considered, our best guess puts the timeframe for the protocol's delivery around Q4 2008. The protocol must be ratified by the FC standards body and the INCITS T11 Technical Committee.
So why do we want to converge Fibre Channel and Ethernet into a single fabric? By combining FC and Ethernet, a single cable and a single card can replace current network interface and host bus adapter (HBA) cards. And because every new technology needs a three-letter acronym, the resulting interface card will be known as a Converged Network Adapter (CNA). These will feed switches or directors, and accommodate FC or FCoE and Ethernet over 10Gig links. In addition, the same switches and directors will handle both protocols while simultaneously allowing storage and networking domains to control their traffic independently. This preserves the separation of the storage and networking management domains while consolidating hardware.
Who's involved in this effort? From a storage perspective, we should look at the usual suspects: Brocade, Cisco Systems (Nuova Systems), EMC, Emulex, Finisar, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NetApp, QLogic and Sun. Other players interested in participating in the FCoE market include Blade Network Technologies, Broadcom, Intel and Mellanox Technologies. The most obvious and most vocal proponents of this technology have been Cisco and its recently annexed incubation company, Nuova (the former Andiamo team).
Beneath the marketing gloss, FCoE looks very promising. It's certainly moving down the certification route faster than any other protocol in recent history, on track to go from inception to production in less than two years. This has been accomplished through universal backing by all participants, as well as by Nuova relinquishing its patents to FCoE with the understanding that proprietary protocols don't create a big market. Does all this unprecedented cooperation guarantee success? Probably not, but it should help to relieve any interoperability concerns.
Most new technologies aren't implemented in production environments until they're fully tested and proven. For users, the key to FCoE will be understanding its impact on data center operations. Once test and development cycles have been completed, early deployments will most likely be in the form of server fan-in environments--especially high-density blade server environments--and then move into the core from there.
Issues to consider
So why should you be thinking about FCoE now? Products are becoming available--specifically, the Cisco Nexus 5000 and Intel Adapters--and some vendors have made claims that FCoE will be in production environments this summer. Users currently testing FCoE environments using alpha/beta equipment seem quite satisfied with it. With some products available now and more due this fall, I say companies should consider creating a test and development platform for FCoE to become comfortable with the technology. Companies should definitely be planning to include FCoE in their 2009 budget if it isn't already in this year's.
What will be the role of Fibre Channel going forward? Saying that FCoE will be the end of Fibre Channel makes for good headlines, but the reality is that FC is here to stay, at least for a while. The Fibre Channel Industry Association continues to drive toward 16Gig FC. Fibre Channel will co-exist with FCoE for a number of reasons. FCoE still needs to be tested and proven, and FC will continue to deliver services until then. Given that data centers are very slow to change--with plenty of people taking the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" position--adoption could take a while. Lastly, there will always be protocol zealots resisting any new technology. It should be noted, however, that FCoE was designed to co-exist with FC and these technologies will work with existing management tools.
The green impact of FCoE is a compelling factor. The combination of lower power and cooling requirements (not from the protocol, but from the reduction in equipment) with reduced cabling will certainly be attractive as greater emphasis is placed on green initiatives.
You could also consider FCoE the beginning of the end for the cultural barriers that exist between technology domains in large-scale data centers. At the very least, it provides the storage team with an opportunity to get to know the networking team so they can work together to provide higher levels of service to the business and reduce costs. Ultimately, it could provide an opportunity to embrace the sort of change that delivers significant benefit to the business.