Fibre Channel over Ethernet: allowing the big data-center synch

With Fibre Channel over Ethernet now a reality, enterprises prep for data and storage convergence

With Fibre Channel over Ethernet now a reality, enterprises are readying plans to converge data and storage networks.

Convergence

For the County of Los Angeles - with more than 10 million residents, the nation's largest county - the timing couldn't be better for the arrival of Fibre Channel over Ethernet on the data-center scene.


Read varying opinions on how important FCoE will be in future data centers, then participate in a poll.


L.A. County is in the middle of a server virtualization initiative, a data-center redesign and construction of a new data center scheduled for completion in late 2011. "When we put those three things together, we knew we needed a new design that could accommodate them all," says Jac Fagundo, the county's enterprise solutions architect.

Because it can unite data and storage networks on a 10 Gigabit Ethernet fabric, FCoE enabled Fagundo to turn that design vision into a reality. (Read a primer on FCoE technology.)

The plan for the new data center calls for extending virtualization beyond hosting servers to data and storage networks, and includes an overhaul of the county's stovepipe approach to storage and server deployments. "We realized we were going to have to integrate the storage," Fagundo says, "so we decided, why not go a step further and integrate the storage and IP networks in the data center?"

The county started looking at FCoE as an option about a year ago. It turned to Cisco, its Ethernet switch vendor, and last September completed a proof-of-concept trial using the Nexus 7000 and 5000 switches. Introduced last year, these switches represent Cisco's biggest push yet into the enterprise data center. The 5000 supports a prestandard version of FCoE, while the 7000 will be upgraded with FCoE features once the American National Standards Institute finalizes the FCoE standards, probably later this year. Cisco currently is the only vendor offering FCoE support. Its chief Fibre Channel competitor, Brocade Communications, is beta-testing an FCoE switch and plans to make it available later this year. Juniper Networks also is considering adding FCoE capability to its data-center switches - if customer demand warrants it, the company says. (Compare Fibre Channel switches.)

Convergence Graphic

L.A. County is replacing eight Cisco Catalyst 6500 Ethernet switches with two Nexus 7000 switches in its data-center core, and will add a Nexus 5000 switch to the data-center distribution network. The county expects to have live traffic running through the switches by spring.

"This is a multiyear project where the platform features will evolve as we migrate into it," Fagundo says. "Our next-generation data center, of which the Nexus switches and FCoE are a part, is a design that we plan to implement over the next five years."

A technology for tough times

For large enterprises operating distinct Fibre Channel storage-area networks (SAN) and Ethernet data networks, FCoE's potential benefits and cost savings are promising, even though the technology requires new hardware.

"The rule of thumb is that during tight economic times, incumbent technologies do well and it's not wise to introduce a new technology - unless your proposition is one of economic favor," says Skip Jones, president of the Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA). "And that's exactly what FCoE is."

Jones has an obvious bias toward FCoE, but Bob Laliberte, analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, agrees. "The economy will certainly get more companies to look at FCoE," he says. "If vendors can show how FCoE can reduce the cost of powering, cooling and cabling, that will be a compelling reason for companies to look at it."

At a minimum, adopting FCoE lets a company consolidate server hardware and cabling at the rack level. That's the first step in moving to FCoE. Then more consolidation can take place in the core switching fabric, and that reduces costs even further. Ultimately, storage arrays will support FCoE natively (NetApp already has announced such a product), making end-to-end FCoE possible. (Compare Storage Arrays.

L.A. County's Fagundo expects substantial cost savings from using FCoE, although he declined to share detailed estimates. He did say, however, that power consumption alone will be cut in half when the eight Cisco Catalyst switches are consolidated into two Nexus switches. In addition, FCoE will let the county reduce server hardware and cabling by using a converged network adapter (CNA) to replace Ethernet network interface cards and Fibre Channel host bus adapters.

The cost savings in infrastructure, components, edge devices and cabling are compelling reasons to consider FCoE, agrees Ian Rousom, corporate data-center network architect at defense contractor Lockheed Martin in Bethesda, Md. "Cabling is often overlooked, but you can potentially eliminate one of two cable plants using FCoE. If you consolidate racks, you eliminate the biggest source of cable sprawl in the data center."

Ian Rousam

Cisco estimates that enterprises can expect a 2% to 3% savings in power consumption during FCoE's rack-implementation phase, and a total of about 7% savings once FCoE is pushed into the data-center core.

Tall orders for FCoE

The promise of FCoE lies in a merged data and storage network fabric, but making the integration happen isn't easy and shouldn't be done without careful planning. Typically in an enterprise, network and storage management teams don't work together. That has to change with FCoE.

"Certainly at a minimum, collaboration between Ethernet and Fibre Channel departments will have to increase, and merging the two would not be a bad idea," says Rousom, who is considering FCoE. "The people who manage the infrastructure have to agree on policy, change processes, troubleshooting policies and the configuration management process."

That could be a tall order in many enterprises, FCIA's Jones says. "Network and storage administrators drink different kinds of tea; they're different breeds. There will be some turf wars."

L.A. County has dealt with those differences by combining its data-center storage and network groups under a single management umbrella. Initially, the groups' engineering staffs were concerned about merging, Fagundo says. "Then they started contributing to the design and proof of concept, and now they're happy about it."

Beyond cultural issues, enterprises must communicate with their server vendors to find out whether their platforms support CNAs as opposed to separate Ethernet and Fibre Channel adapters, Rousom says. IT managers also must consider security ramifications. "If the Fibre Channel network has a firewall or special security features, the FCoE products may not offer those as part of their feature sets," he explains.

For now, FCoE is gaining traction with such early adopters as L.A. County, where unique circumstances have made the time right to consider a big change. Many more IT executives will take a more cautions approach, however, as Rousom is doing.

"The fact that FCoE is still in the standards process tells me that there is still potential for change at the hardware level before this is all complete," Rousom says. "That, more than anything, is preventing me from buying it."

Bushaus is a freelance technology writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at dbushaus@mindspring.com.

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