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Cisco expands Fibre Channel over Ethernet support; adds multihop FCoE

Cisco adds Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) support to MDS 9500 storage switch, Nexus 7000 data center switch and NX-OS operating system for multihop FCoE

Cisco Systems Inc. took steps to fill in the gaps in Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) support today as part of its data center portfolio expansion.

Cisco's launch of servers, switches and management tools included a handful of FCoE enhancements. It added FCoE support for the MDS 9500 storage switch and the Nexus 7000 data center director switch platform, as well as multihop FCoE support in its NX-OS operating system. Cisco is also moving to a common management tool -- Data Center Network Manager -- for storage-area network (SAN) and local-area network (LAN) devices.

Director-class, multihop support for Fibre Channel, FCoE, iSCSI and network-attached storage (NAS) gives Cisco the ability to make seven hops between Unified Computing System (UCS), Nexus and MDS devices, allowing customers to scale Fibre Channel over Ethernet networks without requiring the emerging Transparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL) standard. Previously, Cisco only supported FCoE on its Nexus 5000 top-of-rack switch.

"It's not so much FCoE everywhere, as FCoE anywhere," said Rob Nusbaum, Cisco's product line manager for the MDS platform. "Each node running FCoE is no longer dependent on TRILL or Fabric Path. You can aggregate FCoE traffic in the SAN core and to other devices in the network."

These enhancements come as people in the data storage industry continue to debate when FCoE will become prevalent in the data center, and whether it will even be the key protocol for convergence between Fibre Channel and Ethernet. The move Fibre Channel over Ethernet has come slower than Cisco anticipated when it first revealed its new data center strategy around Nexus switches and its Unified Computing System platform three ago.

Analysts agree that Cisco's new additions could help ease the transition to Fibre Channel over Ethernet for enterprises looking to go that way.

"There have been restrictions until now," said Wikibon senior analyst Stuart Miniman. "One of them was you couldn't do multihop. This announcement from Cisco removes most of those restrictions. For Fibre Channel customers who want to take a slower path toward convergence, it gives them a path to do that."

Rick Villars, vice president of storage systems and executive strategies at IDC, agreed that multihop capability makes Fibre Channel over Ethernet a better fit for FC shops.

"If you were going to do Fibre Channel and FCoE before, you were limited to having dedicated storage to the UCS platform," Villars said. "Multihop capability lets you broaden the base to customers who have Fibre Channel storage. It's also important as part of a disaster recovery strategy because it involves the full backup and recovery effort."

Common management for storage and network teams

Data Center Network Manager is the first step toward common management of LANs and SANs for Cisco shops. It combines Cisco Network Manager and Cisco Fabric Manager for data storage management into one platform with integration with VMware vCenter for provisioning and troubleshooting. There are still two versions -- Data Center Network Manager for SAN and Data Center Network Manager for LAN.

"This is a good step," Wikibon's Miniman said of Data Center Network Manager. "You don't want to just allow the LAN and SAN guys to do the same things they always did. Having a single pane of glass can blur the lines between the LAN and SAN without scaring off the network and storage guys."

'Still torn' on Fibre Channel over Ethernet

Is this enough to push significant adoption of Fibre Channel over Ethernet? Villars and Miniman said they expect 10 GbE to play a major role in a converged network, but FCoE's place in that convergence remains unclear.

"We're still torn on FCoE," IDC's Villars said. "We think it's a matter of time on 10 Gig Ethernet, but whether it's FCoE, iSCSI or a file protocol, that's still up in the air. We see companies that are loyal to Fibre Channel going to FCoE, but others who are just as loyal to Fibre Channel want to look at file storage for their converged infrastructure. We're still in the early stages where people are looking at a lot of options; it's not just about the network protocol, it's also about management for the converged environment."

Wikibon's Miniman said the next major piece of the FCoE puzzle will come when Intel releases its "Sandy Bridge" server architecture later this year that will be optimized for 10 GbE and drive more LAN on motherboards (LOMs) that support FCoE. Miniman said 10 GbE may drag Fibre Channel over Ethernet into the data center because when all the pieces are in place, administrators will feel pressure to use them.

"FCoE is not the driver for convergence," Miniman said, "10 Gig Ethernet adoption is the driver. When you have all the pieces embedded, there will be pressure from management to say 'Why pay for separate HBAs and Fibre Channel switches when Cisco tells me I have all these pieces already?'"

Cisco's FC switch rival Brocade has taken a more conservative approach to FCoE, although it acquired network switch vendor Foundry Networks in 2009 to give it an Ethernet platform. Brocade supports FCoE, but remains more devoted to developing its pure Fibre Channel products than Fibre Channel over Ethernet.

"Brocade has not been showing up in FCoE deployments from what I've heard," Miniman said. "Cisco has a broader portfolio of FCoE products and Brocade has the second largest, but Brocade does not seem as committed to FCoE. Brocade has an Ethernet business it's looking to grow and a Fibre Channel business to maintain, but it's not committed to merging them in a single platform."

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