Cisco shops look ahead to FCoE

Cisco customers say FCoE makes sense as they try to centralize IT and keep data center sprawl to a minimum.

Storage administrators for Cisco Systems Inc. customers Lafarge North America Inc. and East Carolina University see Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) as the next logical step in data centers where storage and networking is already rapidly consolidating.

The construction materials supplier and the university use Cisco's MDS director switches and Ethernet gear, and are watching the development of the networking vendor's Nexus FCoE switches. Cisco has been the most aggressive vendor in pushing FCoE as a way to run FC and Ethernet on the same network. Brocade, its main switch rival, said it fully supports FCoE but thinks adoption will be slow. Brocade also remains committed to advancing FC gear to 16 Gbps and beyond.

While many storage insiders agree with Brocade that FCoE is years away from widespread adoption, some IT administrators are already planning for it.

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Brent Wolfram, lead architect for enterprise infrastructure at Herndon, Va.-based Lafarge North America, said he looks forward to reducing his data center cabling and footprint, and moving to a common platform.

"That's part of the appeal of Cisco's Data Center 3.0 and MDS," he said. "FCoE is a compelling piece. The standard's not ratified yet, but it's an exciting thing. Are we going to jump on it now? No, but we'll see how things shake out. And Cisco's vision is more intriguing and a more complete strategy than Brocade's and other vendors'."

Colleen Rhodes, systems analyst, storage technology at Greenville, N.C.-based East Carolina University, said her team gets regular updates from Cisco on FCoE.

"We'll be looking at that as we expand the data center," she said. "It's in our near-term future."

Brent Zimmer, East Carolina's assistant director of enterprise storage, said the university is already preparing for FCoE.

"We've kept an eye on that for the past year," he said. "We looked at implementing more iSCSI, but decided to hold off and wait for FCoE before going to 10 Gig [Ethernet]. We have a blade infrastructure with our SAN switches and we're waiting for FCoE modules for our blade chassis."

The admins from Lafarge North America and East Carolina University said they aren't worried about management complications rising from a move to FCoE. However, a big question in many shops is who will manage the converged network – the network team or the storage team?

Lafarge North America's Wolfram said the rise of blades and server virtualization has already forced his IT team to deal with that management issue, and he sees it as a positive in the long run.

"Now we have a Cisco LAN fabric, an HP [Hewlett-Packard Co.] blade enclosure, and in the middle is a virtual connection doing communication between the SAN and LAN," he said. "We're already blurring the lines between server, Unix and networking teams, and the skill sets you need on those teams. We're starting to make changes to make that work more smoothly. Nexus is going to further blur those lines, but it will force us to be less siloed. We don't want our people to be pigeonholed. We want good technologists."

Rhodes said the networking and storage teams are separate at East Carolina University, "but we all work closely together," she noted.

The university's Zimmer also sees FCoE bringing the network and storage teams together. "As FCoE comes out, there will be a big merging of those teams," he said.

Centralized IT boosts storage needs

Lafarge North America switched to Cisco MDS 9509 directors in 2007 when the company centralized IT operations out of its Toronto office, which required doubling the size of the primary data center and moving the backup data center to a different facility. A large storage upgrade was part of the centralization, as Lafarge brought in EMC Clariion and 3PAR InServ arrays to go with its previous HP StorageWorks XP12000 systems.

"Historically, we had some challenges with support and stability issues with the Brocade platform," Wolfram said. "And we needed to move to a direct-class chassis. VSAN [Virtual SAN] support was a requirement, and Cisco was ahead of the game on that. Brocade fought the notion, but eventually came up with their own solution under a different name."

Wolfram said Lafarge North America has 300 TB of storage and just under 500 SAN switch ports in its data center. The 90,000-employee company also uses Cisco's Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) in 65 remote offices. Wolfram said WAAS was chosen over Riverbed Technology Inc. because it integrated easier into Lafarge's infrastructure.

"There was no compelling reason to introduce another vendor into the mix," he said. "Cisco allows us to have an integrated solution – no finger-pointing and one throat to choke."

SAN grows to support distance education

East Carolina University implemented Cisco 9500 directors and 9100 fabric switches when it went to a SAN in 2004, mainly to support its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

The university's storage is a mix of Sun Microsystems Inc. StorEdge 9985 (rebranded from Hitachi Data Systems); Clariion SAN, Celerra NAS gateways and Centera archiving systems from EMC; HP EVA 4100 midrange arrays; and Quantum Corp./ADIC Scaler tape libraries.

Rhodes said the university's storage capacity has doubled every year – increasing from 10 TB in 2004 to 510 TB today.

That's largely because of the emergence of distance education, which requires the university to support a Blackboard course management application and video over the Internet. East Carolina also stores images for its on-campus medical center.

"Our users keep asking for more space on the SAN," Zimmer said, "and they haven't given any back yet."

Rhodes said Cisco's VSAN capabilities play a big role in keeping traffic separate for all of the different entities and applications on campus. "We run Solaris for Banner [ERP] and Blackboard uses Hitachi storage, so they're on separate VSANs," she said. "We have a Windows server for EMC Clariion, and it was a real concern to keep Solaris traffic separate from Windows traffic. We also keep tape library traffic separate."

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