Has Fibre Channel over Ethernet's Time Come?

By Sharon Linsenbach  |  Print this article Print


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Fibre Channel technology has been a mainstay in storage networking for years. But the time may be right for Fibre Channel over Ethernet, which promises to revolutionize the entire data center.

After years of slow progress, Fibre Channel over Ethernet technology is poised to set off a seismic shift in the data center, storage and networking markets.

Traditional data center infrastructure uses an Ethernet-based LAN infrastructure to connect servers to each other and a separate Fibre Channel network to connect servers and storage, says Jieming Zhu, a distinguished technologist at Hewlett-Packard.

These two networks have co-existed in isolation in part because they fulfill different needs in the data center, says Zhu. In particular, Fibre Channel is used in a data center to allow for the quick migration of data between servers and storage hardware, while Ethernet has become ubiquitous within the data center, corporate environments and the consumer market.

One of the major benefits of Fibre Channel is improved speed and performance over traditional Ethernet networks, as well as packet delivery rates approaching 100 percent. While some packet loss is acceptable and even expected on traditional Ethernet networks, the same isn’t true within a storage network.

"On the storage side, that just can’t happen," Zhu says. "If you drop a packet, then your database will crash or your e-mail server won’t work properly." There has been an increased need among end users to upgrade or replace existing Ethernet networking infrastructure that’s been used for decades to guarantee the same kind of packet delivery rates seen on Fibre Channel, Zhu says.

"Ethernet protocol has to be enhanced to guarantee delivery of every single packet, to guarantee that these networks are 'lossless,’" Zhu says. Currently, there are two complementary standards that have been developed, converged enhanced Ethernet (CEE) and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), he says. Both work together to increase the performance of existing Ethernet and to tunnel Fibre Channel traffic through the Ethernet infrastructure.

But with an increasing trend toward consolidation, virtualization and improved performance in the data center, an increasing number of end users are pushing for converged networks that use a converged network adapter (CNA) and a single switch to carry both Ethernet and Fibre Channel traffic. There’s also immediate benefit, in that Fibre Channel technology requires far fewer cables, as well as the ability to do away with two separate types of infrastructure, says Richard Villars, vice president of storage systems at research firm IDC.

While technologies like blades and virtualization have done much to accelerate consolidation within data centers, the technologies do result in some physical asset issues.

"Blade servers and virtualization that consolidate physical IT assets do introduce a lot of challenges," says Villars, mainly managing cabling and linkages between hardware.  And many times, Ethernet just isn’t fast enough to keep up with hardware and application needs.

"There’s also a need for consolidation and improving performance of existing systems," he says, especially in the storage area.

"FCoE can provide a huge potential benefit for customers as far as simplifying their overall network connectivity, simplifying hardware and appliance procurement, and reducing physical and personnel costs as well as demonstrating power savings," Zhu says.

Fibre Channel technology can also be leveraged to allow for even more virtualization in the data center, says Zhu, since its higher performance allows for dynamic provisioning of different traffic types, as well as the ability to load balance for greater efficiency.

In terms of developing a standard, Zhu says the process is well under way, and that many large vendors including HP already offer products based on the draft standard. He cites HP’s blade servers and Virtual Connect Fibre Channel modules for blades as examples, but adds that HP expects revisions will be made to the standard before it’s ratified.

"Just like any data center technology, it always takes a long time for products to be qualified, certified and integrated to become a viable solution in the data center," he says. "Fibre Channel has taken years to get this close to mainstream technology, and we don’t expect the data center will switch overnight to this new protocol."

The major hurdle is the complexity Fibre Channel adds to organizations’ management responsibilities, says Zhu. Normally, storage, networks and servers are managed by three different administrative teams with different skill sets. One converged network that has to incorporate elements of all three would only require one administrator—but that person would need knowledge of all three infrastructure systems. The technology, therefore, requires a much different personnel and management approach, he says. 

"This is an end-to-end data center issue. With a converged network, who’s going to manage that network? It requires a very sophisticated set of skills and familiarity with management automation system software to deliver the true benefit of converged networks," Zhu says.

Until now, the higher initial cost of Fibre Channel has also been an obstacle to widespread adoption, since the technology requires separate switches and other hardware.

But as pressure mounts for further consolidation and greater performance, the market for Fibre Channel will keep growing, Zhu says, estimating that the current market is around $3 billion.

"You have to assume that, eventually, every single Fibre Channel infrastructure will be replaced by FCoE, and that traditional Ethernet infrastructure will be replaced by these kinds of converged networks," says Zhu.

The question is, when? Because of the miserable economy, many end users are cutting back on hardware refreshes, even in areas as mission-critical as the data center. Villars says that the economy remains a great unknown, but that there’s incredible opportunity for solution providers who use FCoE to respond to customers’ desire for more integrated, converged networks because much of the necessary technology is already present in customers’ data centers.

"Part of the benefit for end users is there’s not so much physical rip and replace—you don’t have to rip 10 years of Fibre Channel or firmware expertise out of an administrator’s head, but the benefit for vendors is there are also opportunities here for both hardware and services solutions," he says.

And for solution providers, delivering storage, networking and server expertise can become a lucrative practice area, since, while these skills are in high demand on their own, the combination of the three will become increasingly important over the next few years.

The next two years will most likely see a rise in testing FCoE for both vendors and large corporate customers, says Villars, and while solution providers should remain aware of the opportunities with FCoE, they shouldn’t rush to do away with traditional networking, storage and server expertise altogether.

"This isn’t a foregone conclusion—there are customers who want to maintain two different types of systems, but there are also customers who understand the benefits of having everything converged," says Villars.


Sharon Linsenbach Sharon Linsenbach is a staff writer for eWEEK and eWEEK Channel Insider. Prior to joining Ziff Davis, Sharon was Assistant Managing Editor for CRN, a weekly magazine for PC and technology resellers. Before joining CRN, Sharon was an Acquisitions Editor for The Coriolis Group and later, Editorial Director with Paraglyph Press, both in Scottsdale, AZ. She holds a BA in English from Drew University and lives in the Philadelphia suburbs with her significant other and two neurotic cats. When she's not reading or writing about technology, Sharon enjoys yoga, knitting, traveling and live music. Sharon can be reached at Sharon.Linsenbach@ziffdavisenterprise.com.

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