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A turning point for storage networking: Hot Spots

By 2010 to 2011, most data centers should be onboard with converged networks. Will you be ready? If not, here's why you need to be.

Storage pros will need to learn more about the network than ever before

Data centers are being transformed. Companies are consolidating geographically dispersed data centers into centralized ones to reduce footprints and costs, and to improve performance. One of the most visible technologies enabling this change is virtualization, particularly server virtualization. But despite all of the attention virtualization has received, probably less than 10% of available servers have been virtualized, leaving a lot of room for future growth. Another significant part of this transformation is the expanding role of the network. To support all of the features and functionality of server virtualization, a networked storage environment is required. Research from Enterprise Strategy Group indicates that 86% of server virtualization shops leverage a networked storage environment. While vendors will argue the merits of various types of networks, the most common one is still Fibre Channel (FC), chosen for performance reasons. However, it's not used exclusively and many firms will deploy multiple storage networks based on performance needs, internal skills and budgets.

FCoE's role in the network

Just as data centers are transforming, the most popular storage networking technology is also evolving. While many companies were content to follow the FC roadmap--upgrading from 1Gb to 2Gb, then to 4Gb and now 8Gb--new technologies like Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) have given users something to think about before blindly progressing to 16Gb FC. Why is that? And why should the storage team pay attention?

There's the potential for much higher throughput/performance.

  • FCoE leverages 10Gb Ethernet (10GbE). To be more specific, it leverages an enhanced version of the Ethernet standard referred to as Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE). The changes are mostly related to eliminating dropped packets and relieving congestion.
  • The roadmap for FCoE mirrors Ethernet. This means the next leap is four times the throughput (up to 40Gb), which will quickly surpass the FC roadmap.

Additional savings can be realized through convergence.

  • Every IT organization is under constant pressure to reduce costs. FCoE provides the opportunity to reduce the number of cards and cables required at least at the rack level. This could also have an impact on power and cooling requirements.
  • List prices for 10GbE ports are already less than $500 per port and will continue to decline as sales volumes increase.

Major vendors have made significant investments in this space.

  • They understand the benefits of convergence and are building hardware and software portfolios to provide solutions to enable this transition. Some of the more notable acquisitions include Cisco Systems Inc. bringing in Nuova Systems Inc. and Brocade's acquisition of Foundry Networks Inc. Other firms like Emulex Corp. and QLogic Corp. have developed their own technology to deliver converged network adaptors to replace host bus adapters and NIC cards.

Why is this important to the storage team? As data centers and the networks that power them continue to change, the line between data networks and storage networks will blur. Server virtualization and data mobility are forcing IT to rethink the traditional, siloed approach to data center technologies. For example, before Cisco announced its Nexus 1000 virtual switches at VMworld 2008, server admins controlled VMware virtual switches embedded in the ESX hypervisor through a VMware interface. Now, if users choose to deploy the new Cisco Nexus 1000 in VMware environments, network admins can regain control of the switching environment and leverage Cisco's NX-OS to manage the virtual, as well as the physical, Ethernet switches.

What the transformation means to storage teams

It's important to understand where your company is when considering this transformation process. Has it implemented server virtualization? Is it in production? How is it connecting the virtualized server environment to the storage? What technologies are being considered? Take this opportunity to become more relevant to the business. Think in terms of how changes in the IT environment can positively impact the company's bottom line, not just enhance the visibility of your particular domain. More specifically, the following must be considered:

Bottlenecks. Once server virtualization technologies have been deployed correctly, bringing on a new application can require only a few minutes. But how long will it take to provision the storage to support it? If the answer is measured in days or weeks, the process needs to be reviewed and new storage technologies may be required.

Who controls the newly deployed network? Typically, storage teams dictate the type of network supporting the storage environment. Looking ahead, it's easy to imagine that changing. If FCoE takes off, will the deployment of Ethernet switches be controlled by storage or networking companies? Will the storage team or the networking group have the responsibility and budget? Will companies need hybrid IT groups with members from both of these teams?

Do FCoE products need certification from storage vendors? Traditionally, FC switch sales are influenced by the specific vendor but controlled by storage companies. Ethernet switches, sold into the network groups, haven't needed any approvals for NAS and iSCSI implementations. With FCoE, however, the game has changed. For now, all FCoE products are undergoing testing and so-called certification by major vendors. But will this trend continue? If you've been purchasing Ethernet switches for years without requiring storage vendor approval, why start now? And questions remain as to whether or not storage vendors will even have the time or desire to test all of the solutions. Will storage vendors retain final approval or will network vendors convince customers that it's an unnecessary step? It will be important to keep an eye on this potential shift in power.

FC won't disappear overnight. Remember when open systems were going to eliminate mainframes? There are still plenty of mainframes around and you could argue that the concept of virtualization is simply open systems recognizing a great benefit of logical partitions in the mainframe world and adopting it. FC will be around for a while, but like ESCON and FICON, it may not be the fastest growing or most exciting segment to work in five to 10 years down the road.

Chart your career for change

Athletes cross train to break up the monotony of their routine and to increase their overall strength and endurance. IT shops should do the same. Begin to explore and educate yourself, but don't limit your studies to just your current responsibilities. Think about adjacent domains and always consider how a new technology will drive higher levels of service to the business.

Vendors, especially those with a convergence message, now offer classes and certification programs to become better educated on these new technologies and virtualization products. Many are offered online and don't require travel. Take advantage of any company-sponsored training to expand your knowledge base and position yourself for future growth.

In addition, go to the certifying bodies themselves, like the IEEE and T11, to learn more about the status of CEE and FCoE. Other helpful sites include the FCoE home page.

Look for integration points

Top-of-rack switches are one of those areas where FCoE makes sense. They reduce the number of cables and cards deployed, but don't require a full rip and replace because they can direct traffic into an FC SAN or Ethernet LAN. You'll need to be ready to implement these new technologies when the opportunity arises.

Cisco is driving convergence with products and software, like the Nexus product line and NX-OS operating system, which combines storage networking SAN-OS and IOS into a single interface. The company's recently announced Nexus 1000 virtual switch resides in the hypervisor and replaces the VMware virtual switch. It's also controlled by NX-OS. You can expect Brocade, with its acquisition of Foundry Networks, to follow suit with a combined OS and single console to manage the storage and data network.

The big picture

Convergence is coming, so be supportive of these efforts and try to become part of the planning and testing teams. Remember, the two largest FC vendors made some major investments to solidify their portfolios this fall. Become a proponent of mixed silos. Many companies have already begun to embrace the shift on a project-by-project basis. Network convergence in virtualized environments is still a relatively new model. Yes, there are products available and there's some testing taking place, but it's certainly not too late to get up to speed. This year, dedicate time to learning about FCoE and meeting with vendors that supply this technology. Think of 2009 as the year to kick the tires. More advanced companies may start limited production deployments and by 2010-2011 most data centers should be on board with converged networks. The question, however, is: Will you be?

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