Fibre Channel over Ethernet a hot topic, so hurry up and wait

LAS VEGAS -- Fibre Channel over Ethernet is considered an initial step towards a converged data center switching fabric, and it was a hot topic at this week's Interop conference.

The Ethernet Alliance hosted an FCoE and Converged Ethernet SAN interoperability demonstration; vendors highlighted products such as switches, adapters and testers that are designed to support FCoE; and conference keynotes, sessions and discussions seemingly all had an FCoE angle or element.

Yet vendors at Interop say it's not driving the market for current data center projects. The market for FCoE is still in the gestation phase as standards are still fluid and pricing is too high.

“We don’t see it happening soon,” said Manfred Arndt, distinguished technologist in convergence solutions for HP ProCurve. “It's too early and it's too expensive.”

Per-port pricing for FCoE switches is elusive. Brocade did not disclose pricing when it unveiled the 8000 FCoE switch last month. Cisco disclosed 10 Gigabit Ethernet per-port pricing on its Nexus 5000 switch -- $900 – but not FCoE port pricing.

Per-port pricing on pure FibreChannel switches, like Brocade’s 5300, can range from $1,100 to $1,800 per 4Gbps port.

Arndt said HP ProCurve will address the market when it approaches mainstram adoption, not early adoption. Arndt and Marius Haas, senior vice president and general manager of HP ProCurve suggested that FCoE might appear on HP’s Virtual Connect server interconnect modules, which are designed to ease server movement by decoupling fixed LAN and SAN addresses from NICs and dynamically assigning them from a pool.

Investment firm UBS, meanwhile, believes HP may OEM Brocade’s 8000 FCoE switch.

“We expect Brocade to announce OEM deals (e.g. IBM/HP/others) for its 8000 FCoE converged switch in early June perhaps around its tech day,” states UBS analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos in an Interop highlight bulletin released this week.

While Brocade and Cisco have already announced FCoE switches, UBS expects Juniper to enter the market in 2011.

“Timing of market ramp… continues to appear subdued until (the second half of) 2010 or 2011, in our view, given the economic downturn, incomplete standards and inertia of IT purchasing – storage and networking functions are now separate,” Theodosopoulos states in his bulletin.

Indeed, Brocade doesn’t see a mainstream market for FCoE until 2011.

“The challenge is, as users incorporate more Ethernet in the data center and adopt FCoE, they want to make sure the protocol translation happens seamlessly,” said Dave Stevens, Brocade CTO, during an Interop keynote panel session. “There are very few leading edge people doing FCoE today. It will be mid-next year for full standardization. We’re very early in the adoption cycle.”

Incomplete standards are what's holding top-of-rack switch start-up Arista Networks back from implementing FCoE.

“We could add it this year or next,” says Arista CEO Jayshree Ullal. “But the Data Center Bridging standard needs to get done, and Brocade and Cisco have two different addressing formats” for FCoE. “We plan to support it in 2010.”

On the list of data center priorities, FCoE does not rank high, according to Mark Stuart Day, chief scientist of Riverbed.

“FCoE is not a driving issue” in data center projects today, Day said during the Interop keynote panel session.

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