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FC technology still dominates enterprise storage networking

FC technology will likely remain the dominant storage networking technology in enterprise IT for at least two years, as 10 Gigabit Ethernet options mount a stiffer challenge.

Fibre Channel (FC) will likely remain the predominant storage networking technology in enterprise IT shops for at least the next two years, despite past predictions it would give way to 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE) alternatives.

Market research firms and industry analysts disagree on the timeframe when 10 GbE-based Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), block-based iSCSI or file-based network-attached storage (NAS) might knock FC technology from its primary position in enterprise data storage networks. But they agree that the long-established FC won't disappear any time soon.

"Fibre Channel is safe. It's trusted. It's still a rock-solid solution. And customers aren't looking to rip everything out and change their protocols. Changing protocols is something that usually takes many years to happen," said Stuart Miniman, principal research contributor at Wikibon, a community-focused research and analyst firm based in Marlborough, Mass.

FC storage networking technology enjoyed a 13% surge in revenue and 12% increase in switch port shipments from the third quarter to fourth quarter of 2011, according to South San Francisco-based Crehan Research Inc., which tracks the networking industry.

Seamus Crehan, president of Crehan Research, attributed the spike to normally strong storage sales in the fourth quarter and the release of upgraded FC director products from Brocade Communications Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc.

Brocade, the first switching vendor to ship 16 Gbps FC gear, reported that 16-gig accounted for 27% of its FC director sales in the fourth quarter. Brocade executives said the transition from 8 Gbps to 16 Gbps has been faster than any previous bandwidth bump at the same stage.

Even with the fourth-quarter spike, FC revenue was roughly flat in 2011 vs. 2010, and industry analysts don't expect the annual growth of FC technology to track in the double-digit range again. Projections from market research firms indicate it will show only modest growth, remain static or decline during the next two to five years.

Redwood City, Calif.-based Dell'Oro Group Inc. predicts a compound annual growth rate of 3% for FC revenue and 2% for switch port shipments over the next five years before it hits a plateau. Casey Quillin, a senior analyst at Dell'Oro, said he sees FCoE as a potential alternative to FC technology but not necessarily a replacement.

"It's going to have a long tail, and it's going to continue to be the SAN [storage-area network] protocol of choice specifically when it comes to the need for speed, security and efficiency," Quillin said.

Crehan Research forecasts FC growth this year with the impending ramp-up of servers based on Intel Corp.'s new Xeon E5-2600 product family, the arrival of 16 Gbps products and an improving economy.

Still, Crehan foresees Fibre Channel flattening and gradually declining over the next four years, as FCoE takes some share.

Crehan predicts that FCoE switch port shipments will grow 127% in 2012, from 1.5 million to 3.4 million, and ultimately surpass Fibre Channel in switch port shipments in 2014.

"These technologies are on two totally different trajectories. One is a flattish, plateauing technology, and the other has an extremely fast growth rate," Crehan said. But, he added, "FCoE shipments have far exceeded what people expected, and FCoE usage has probably lagged what people expected."

Converged network adapters offer 'FCoE ready' capabilities

The shipment of FCoE switches and converged network adapters (CNAs) designed to run FCoE doesn't mean enterprise IT shops are implementing FCoE yet, much less running it end to end from their servers to storage. IT shops can also use CNAs with iSCSI or NAS over enhanced 10 GbE, which now has lossless properties to prevent the dropping of data packets.

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"Some are buying CNAs as a strategic move," said Marco Coulter, research director, storage practice at The InfoPro LLC, a New York City-based division of 451 Research. "They're getting 'FCoE ready' at the CNA end, though they may only be using the Ethernet capability."

InfoPro's recent survey of more than 150 large and midsize enterprises showed that 15% had deployed CNAs, but only 8% were using FCoE. Early FCoE adopters tend to use it only in one segment of the storage network, between the servers and top-of-rack switches, Coulter noted.

Joe Skorupa, a research vice president (VP) at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said the latest generation of enterprise-class servers generally ship with CNAs. For IT shops that virtualize servers, the 10 GbE-capable CNAs can help to eliminate a significant number of the ports, adapters and cables they needed with Gigabit Ethernet.

"It just doesn't make sense anymore to put in 1 Gig adapters unless you know they're dedicated servers that are never going to host a virtualized workload," Skorupa said.

Signs point to 10 GbE gaining a larger presence in storage networks, whether with FCoE, NAS or iSCSI. Although InfoPro's survey showed that 10 GbE was the predominant storage network backbone in just 4% of large and midsize enterprises, it also found that 31% were using 10 GbE.

Will Ethernet 'steamroll' FC technology?

From 2010 to 2011, iSCSI-based block storage revenue grew approximately 40%, from $2 billion to $2.8 billion, while NAS revenue escalated 22%, from $3.7 billion to $4.5 billion, according to Roger Cox, a VP in Gartner's global storage research unit. Meanwhile, revenue for FC-connected block storage increased just 2%, from $10 billion to $10.2 billion, although Fibre Channel clearly still represents the lion's share.

"Ethernet has been like a steamroller, and it's run over the top of anything it's ever had to go up against. The only one it hasn't run over so far is Fibre Channel, and over time, it will eventually engulf and devour Fibre Channel," Gartner's Skorupa said. "But it will be more than five years [before] most data centers have the majority of their storage connections native on the array with Ethernet. There are more than $50 billion of installed Fibre Channel assets."

On some fronts, the protocol wars are starting to cool with the introduction of products that support multiple connectivity options. For instance, QLogic Corp. last year announced adapters, switches and routers that can run 16 Gbps FC or 10 GbE from the same hardware. Another example was Brocade's release of a fabric adapter that combines a CNA, FC host bus adapter (HBA), and Ethernet network interface card (NIC) for simultaneous FC and Ethernet fabric connections.

"I would hope we're past a lot of the protocol passionistas debating over which one to use," Wikibon's Miniman said. "The head-to-head technology vs. technology tends to be mattering less, whether you're running NAS, iSCSI, Fibre Channel or FCoE. The vendors are putting together solutions that make that part invisible."

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