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Fibre Channel over Ethernet timing may cause problems

Converging Fibre Channel and Ethernet into one network makes sense in theory, but Dell'Oro Group report points out the devil's in the details.

The Dell'Oro Group's latest storage area network (SAN) forecast report points out roadblocks to early adoption of Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) products including pricing, vendor qualifications and distribution issues.

The market research firm this week released its SAN Five Year Forecast Report, which includes market pricing and revenue figures, as well as interviews with end users and storage integrators. The report concludes that while Cisco Systems and other storage networking vendors predict that FCoE will see significant adoption as early as this year, the new protocol will more likely go through "a possibly bumpy transitional year" in 2009 and won't see volume sales until at least 2010.

"The theory of converging the two networks is clear, as is the value in general," said Dell'Oro Group president Tam Dell'Oro, who led the research on this report. "Senior executives at companies may be saying to their IT staff, 'go make this happen,' and now we're getting to the stage where users have to figure out what that means."

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Dell'Oro's analysis questions when FCoE's main value proposition – lowering costs by consolidating networks – will actually be realized. The report concludes that the price of 10 Gbps FCoE won't fall below the current cost of 8 Gbps before 2012.

Cisco representatives dispute that idea. "You can get a Nexus 5000 switch right now for $850 per port," said Deepak Munjal, marketing manager for Cisco Data Center solutions. The Nexus 5000 and Nexus 7000 switches are Cisco's platform for FCoE. They ship with copper Ethernet ports and require FCoE modules and software to support the converged network. "Intel also has a dual-port converged adapter for $799," Munjal said. "FCoE is less expensive than 8 Gigabit Fibre Channel today."

"He's correct, but the best-case scenario products he's talking about are apples and oranges as a comparison with our numbers," said Dell'Oro analyst Seamus Crehan. "You can always find individual products that are cheaper, especially when you're talking about unpopulated copper ports. Our data looks at the average market cost, which will be higher because it includes high-end and optical [fiber] products."

Steve Schultz, director of product marketing for Intel's LAN Access Division, said a comparable adapter from Intel with fiber retails at $2,700 for two ports. But, he said, the market must consider the total cost of ownership (TCO) of designing and maintaining two networks instead of one.

Dell'Oro identifies potential problems that must be worked out before the converged network gets deployed, especially when it comes to distribution channels and product qualification testing.

"Will FCoE be sold through Ethernet VARs or traditional storage resellers?" Dell'Oro asked. "If users don't mind a bit of downtime, they can just run FCoE like an Ethernet network." That could potentially cut storage vendors out of the picture, leading to channel conflict.

Cisco said it plans to handle this by qualifying only its storage OEMs, such as EMC and storage resellers to sell the Fibre Channel component of Nexus for the rest of this year. In the meantime, Ethernet VARs who want to sell the new storage networking modules will have to get a Data Center Network Specialist certification. Intel said it also will sell through its existing Ethernet OEM and storage channels – Fibre Channel will be a first for the company, which is creating its own Fibre Channel drivers.

Most organizations will expect products with a new protocol, such as FCoE to be tested and qualified by their storage vendors, which Dell'Oro said, represents a significant cost to vendors. "From a vendor standpoint, you do have to invest in lab devices and test FCoE," Intel's Schultz said. "It's an added level of expense."

According to Dell'Oro, all of these issues will probably keep the typically conservative storage market "kicking the tires" on FCoE for longer than the most optimistic predictions currently project. "This could make a Fibre Channel roadmap more necessary for vendors like Cisco, rather than just FCoE," she said.

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