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Storage vendors propose FC over Ethernet standard

A group of nine storage vendors led by Emulex is proposing a Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard to the ANSI T11 standards committee.

Storage vendors including Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., EMC Corp., Emulex Corp., IBM, Intel, Nuova, QLogic Corp., and Sun Microsystems Inc. are proposing a Fibre Channel over Ethernet standard to the ANSI T11 standards committee.

The new specification will define the process of adding Fibre Channel information into Ethernet packets as the "payload"; the new protocol would be a Layer 2 networking standard that would allow for the creation of converged networks combining Fibre Channel, enhanced Ethernet, and high-performance computing (HPC) clustered traffic in the data center, according to Taufik Ma, vice president of marketing in the intelligent network products division for Emulex.

"A new class of converged adapters would be used in servers" in order to connect to the FCoE network, he said. Otherwise, servers would plug into a standard Ethernet network regardless of the back-end storage.

Key to the convergence, according to Emulex officials, is the spread of 10 Gigabit Ethernet, which would allow for more bandwidth to combine protocols on the network. "We expect [10 Gigabit Ethernet] to be a ubiquitous technology looking out three to five years," said Mike Smith, VP of worldwide marketing for Emulex. "The question we're getting asked is how to take advantage of the extra bandwidth."

Emulex predicts Fibre Channel will remain popular in the very high end, but said that the converged network is meant to appeal to small and midsize businesses, particularly as a way to protect existing Fibre Channel investments as iSCSI grows in popularity.

From here, once the proposal goes to the standards body, Ma said, there will probably be an 18-month process before early products hit the market. "We expect to have standards and products, which are worked on in parallel to standards, in the 2009 timeframe," Ma said.

According to Stephanie Balouras, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc., the 2009 timeframe is probably a realistic one. "10 GB Ethernet is already available today," she said. "It's just very expensive at the moment, say $3000 to $5000 per port. As the price continues to decline, I think it will become the dominant networking technology."

However, Balouras pointed out, the server and application vendors are conspicuously missing from the standards group. "I'd like to see Microsoft, Oracle and Linux vendors participate," she said. "iSCSI really took off when Microsoft threw its weight behind it with a free iSCSI initiator for download -- any new standard will only become widely adopted when the operating system and application vendors support it."

Speaking of standards, a previously proposed FC-SATA standard (also spearheaded by Emulex) is slated to come to fruition in the form of product announcements and the release of a finished standard next week, according to company officials. The FC-SATA standard is being ratified this week; an announcement is scheduled for next Wednesday.

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