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Fibre Channel over Ethernet takes its next step

At Storage Networking World, QLogic, NetApp and startup Nuova demo Fibre Channel over Ethernet, but the race to 10 Gigabit Ethernet is far from over.

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- Storage infrastructure vendors are pushing the nascent Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard as the quickest path to 10 Gbps Ethernet connectivity, although iSCSI proponents obviously disagree.

QLogic Corp. kicked off the latest round of FCoE hype yesterday with a press conference at Storage Networking World (SNW) to launch its new 8 Gbps switches and host bus adapters (HBA) and to pledge support for the new FCoE standard. At SNW, QLogic, Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) and Nuova Systems Inc. ran a demonstration system using QLogic FCoE adapters, NetApp storage and Nuova technology.

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The FCoE standard, proposed last April, allows the creation of converged networks combining Fibre Channel and enhanced Ethernet. The key is widespread adoption of 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GigE), which would allow enough bandwidth to effectively combine network protocols. But 10 Gbit has also been seen as the tipping point for widespread adoption of iSCSI, which has been chugging along at 1 Gbit compared to Fibre Channel's 4 Gbit bandwidth.

Converged FCoE networks

In converged FCoE networks, servers would use the same interface for the storage area network (SAN) and LAN, and both networks would use one set of cables and switches, and would consume less power.

But adoption of FCoE will take time. QLogic forecasts that 10% of SAN ports will be FCoE by 2010, and also that all Global 2000 companies will be using FCoE by 2012.

"We don't think CIOs will be jumping up and down, and lay off half the staff overnight," said QLogic president Jeff Benck. "We see two separate teams with common resources."

The press conference was a coming out of sorts for Nuova, whose majority owner is Cisco Systems Inc. Nuova has licensing agreements to provide FCoE technology for QLogic and its HBA rival Emulex Corp., but it hasn't disclosed any products or a timeframe for delivering them.

Nuova positioning papers maintain that FCoE will perform better than iSCSI, require less CPU overhead and provide more security. "It reduces data center cost," said Nuova marketing vice president Soni Jiandani. "It requires fewer cables, adapters and switches, and reduces power consumption."

Still, no one is sounding the death knell for iSCI. IP SANs have been making strides in recent years, particularly in the mid-market and departments of large enterprises.

Although Fibre Channel drives the lion's share of NetApp revenues, NetApp is also the iSCSI market leader, according to IDC. So NetApp is backing FCoE but not abandoning iSCSI, according to Joel Reich, senior director of the company's SAN/iSAN business unit.

"This [FCoE] gives customers a clearer path to 10 Gbit and moves the market faster for 10 Gigabit Ethernet," he said. "I view this as important for large embedded Fibre Channel SANs. If you can reduce the number of server cards and connections in half, that's a huge win."

Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Cisco, EMC Corp., IBM, Intel Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are also backing the FCoE standard. But Reich said the adoption rate of FCoE and iSCSI could ultimately be decided by operating system and server vendors. "Microsoft enabled the iSCSI market, and HP [Hewlett-Packard Co.] and IBM enabled the Fibre Channel market," he said.

IDC analyst Rick Villars said iSCSI will remain popular for new storage implementations while Fibre Channel SAN shops will want to protect their investment with the new standard. "iSCSI isn't going anywhere," Villars said. "ISCSI has a long life for new applications. At the same time, you have to recognize there is an existing world of Fibre Channel" that will probably welcome FCoE.

Except for NetApp, Fibre Channel SAN vendors were slow to adopt iSCSI until newcomers such as EqualLogic Inc. and LeftHand Networks Inc. offered customers viable IP options. Now even large storage vendors say iSCSI is here to say.

HP StorageWorks marketing director Patrick Eitenbichler said he expects iSCSI to continue to drive the growth of midrange storage, and he's not sure there will be demand for FCoE. "The customers I'm seeing say they want to keep storage on a separate network than the LAN," he said.

FCoE versus 10 Gbit iSCSI

LSI Corp., which recently rolled out its first IP SAN, will move along with plans to add native iSCSI connectivity to its entire line. LSI storage general manager Phil Bullinger said FCoE will "blunt 10 Gbit iSCSI's encroachment into the data center," but thinks the new standard is a long way from mainstream adoption. "This has to perform in the data center, and history shows it takes longer than expected for standards to harden for the data center," he said.

Dell enterprise storage general manager Darren Thomas said he still sees 10 GigE as the driving force for iSCSI. "10 Gbit is going to drive iSCSI and make it equal to Fibre Channel in terms of importance for greenfield opportunities where somebody doesn't have networked storage," he said.

At least one enterprise customer said he would welcome FCoE if it reduces his cabling and connections. CNBC vice president of commercial operations Steve Fastook, whose shop uses QLogic SANbox 9000 switches and Apple XSAN storage and is currently evaluating QLogic's new switches, can see the potential of FCoE.

"We have a couple hundred miles of cables," Fastook said. "Any reduction in heat, space, cabling and power is huge for us."

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