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Storage networking vendors race toward 8 Gbit Fibre Channel

Server virtualization is affecting the 8 Gbit Fibre Channel roadmaps of switch vendors Brocade and Cisco, and HBA vendors QLogic and Emulex. With twice as much bandwidth available between servers and storage, customers would be able to connect twice as many servers to storage.

Storage network vendors this week highlighted their race to 8 Gbps Fibre Channel devices in hope that customers will seek a bandwidth bump to run virtual servers.

Fibre Channel switch vendors Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. checked in on 8 Gbit, and HBA vendors QLogic Corp. and Emulex Corp. laid out their 8 Gbit roadmaps during their quarterly earnings conference calls. All except for Cisco said they already have 8 Gbit products and are expecting customers to start moving from 4 Gbit this year. While not as bullish on 8 Gbit, Cisco does share the others' enthusiasm for the emerging FCoE protocol, which is probably closer to two years out for mass adoption.

Here's a quick rundown: Brocade launched its DCX Backbone product with 8 Gbit support, as well as 8 Gbit cards for its 48000 directors; Brocade plans to enter the HBA market with 8 Gbit products around midyear; QLogic said it has 8 Gbit HBAs and switches being qualified by storage vendors and expects them to ship this quarter; and Emulex said it has 8 Gbit HBAs in qualifications with its OEM partners.

Server virtualization seen as driver

Why the hurry to 8 Gbit, considering that no storage system or hard drive vendors are rushing to get there? That's where server virtualization comes in. With twice as much bandwidth available between servers and storage, customers would be able to connect twice as many servers to storage.

On his company's earnings call this week, QLogic CEO H.K. Desai said that he expects 40% and 50% of HBAs sold to be 8 Gbit by the end of 2008. QLogic chief operating officer Jeff Benck added, "Virtualization is driving a greater demand for bandwidth in the data center."

Their counterparts at Emulex weren't quite as bullish, pointing out that it took about 18 months for 4 Gbit HBAs to overtake 2 Gbit and that was an unusually quick transition period.

Cisco is taking the most cautious approach. Deepak Munjal, Cisco's manager of data center marketing, said customers are satisfied with 4 Gbit and the price premium between 4 Gbit and 8 Gbit will likely slow the adoption rate. He expects Cisco to offer 8 Gbit cards for its MDS switches late this year, but doesn't see heavy adoption in 2008.

The price increase comes because 8 Gbit devices require new optical transceivers. Emulex CEO Jim McCluney also noted that the transition to 4 Gbit was accelerated by a move to PCI Express, and there is no similar server bus change this time.

Still, Emulex executives made it clear it is ready to go with 8 Gbit. "There is a lot of concern about pricing for 8 Gbit," said Emulex vice president of marketing Mike Smith. "In reality, the optics are more costly, but I would expect a 10% to 15% premium on 8 Gbit at the start. I think that's relatively modest, considering you're doubling performance."

FCoE brings different challenges

Perhaps the more interesting transition for HBA vendors will come down the road when FCoE becomes available and they roll out Converged Network Adapters (CNAs) to support it. When iSCSI was in its infancy, HBA vendors developed TOEs to replace HBAs on IP SANs. But customers discovered they could run iSCSI SANs with free software initiators instead of purchasing TOE cards.

HBA vendors say the same thing won't happen with FCoE, although Intel Corp. has already launched an initiative to develop software FCoE initiators for Linux. The reason? Because FCoE will require hardware assistance to reach adequate performance levels, they say.

"ISCSI is a different animal than Fibre Channel, it behaves differently, and it's managed differently," said Emulex's Smith. "There's no notion of fabric, and it's managed as a network device. For customers who wanted to migrate to iSCSI, there's no infrastructure needed to connect operating systems and storage devices. That's not the case with FCoE, that's all about leveraging the Fibre Channel protocol stack."

QLogic's Benck agrees. "It's a little different because customers in Fibre Channel space are used to the performance and reliability in what the hardware initiators provide," he said. "When you look at FCoE, the enterprise customers are really demanding that [Fibre Channel] performance level, particularly as they look at consolidating both data and storage networks on a single wire, they really are asking for that kind of capability."


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