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Six factors slowing adoption of converged I/O

Standards, stability and storage issues make transition a journey

By , Network World
September 26, 2011 12:00 AM ET

Network World - So if converging the I/O infrastructure in data centers is all the rage, what's taking IT shops so long to do it?

Six reasons:

• New technology attempting to replace proven and reliable implementations.

• New equipment requirements.

• New standards and proprietary techniques to consider.

• Organizational and operational changes.

• Infrastructure management and stability.

• And, questionable benefits beyond the server and access switch layer.

Converged I/O - running LAN and storage data through the same wires and switches to reduce elements and cost - is a years-long journey though, not an endeavor to be rushed or taken lightly. IT shops have to weigh their situation carefully and know where they want to go, and how and when to get there, before embarking.

Generally, converged I/O constitutes three key elements: 10Gbps Ethernet, Fibre Channel-over-Ethernet (FCoE) and Ethernet equipped with the lossless Data Center Bridging (DCB) standard from the IEEE. FCoE, which tunnels Fibre Channel storage traffic through Ethernet, requires DCB in order to have Ethernet behave as if it had the resiliency of Fibre Channel - lossless data transmission.

According to Dell'Oro Group, FCoE realized $94 million in revenue in the second quarter of 2011, on a shipment of 210,000 ports. The research firm expects 930,000 ports to ship this year, accounting for $422 million in revenue - or about 7% of 10G Ethernet revenue.

Fibre Channel over Ethetnet: allowing the big data center switch

But there are many standards and emerging standards to consider - as well as proprietary vendor schemes -- when evaluating a converged I/O infrastructure throughout your data center. Currently, those standards are in place for FCoE and DCB at the blade server and access switch level; and FCoE is largely a free technology feature of 10Gbps Ethernet switches and converged network adapters.

But standards and methods for extending converged I/O from the server rack and access switch, where it is now taking hold through the core of the data center network, are still percolating. Indeed, some of these standards are competing to become the de facto technique for enabling multipath networking and multihop FCoE capabilities.

Xsigo is a maker of virtual and converged I/O infrastructure products - namely, its I/O Director and Server Fabric platforms. In 2010, privately held Xsigo more than tripled its revenue from the year before, so the company sees a lot of demand for and sales of converged data center I/O gear.

"When servers ran one application per server and that application did not change, you're typically only dealing with a few network connections per server, and pretty low utilization of those connections," says Jon Toor, vice president of marketing for Xsigo. "When you virtualize a server you're dealing with a lot more connections, a lot more workload and it creates a need for a different way of hooking things up."

Xsigo, though, pitches its products as alternatives to having to deploy FCoE to achieve converged data center I/O. Cisco, the market leader in FCoE switches, has been attempting to undermine Xsigo's strategy and company stability.

HP, which enjoys a 20% share of the FCoE blade switch market, says more than half of workloads will be virtualized by 2012, which puts additional strain on the access network.

"Customers are deploying six to eight Gigabit Ethernet connections because virtualization requires more bandwidth out of the servers," says Kash Shaikh, director of marketing for HP Networking. "That amount of cabling blocks airflow. (With converged I/O) you can take that down to two 10G connections coming out of the server and into the first hop switch."

In addition to server virtualization, other converged I/O drivers are cloud deployments, infrastructure flexibility, an increasing amount of server-to-server traffic, and consolidation of I/O density with virtual machines, says Shaun Walsh, vice president of marketing with Emulex. But the march to converged I/O will be gated on the amortization cycles of IT shops and the question of who and what will manage the new infrastructure.

"They have existing infrastructures that they need to amortize over time to get the full value from them," Walsh says, which is usually three to five years.

Management of the infrastructure from both an operational and organizational perspective will have to be considered carefully as well, he says. LAN and SAN teams manage segregated data and storage networks now with likely different operating methods.

"The biggest challenge for organizations is not physical deployment, it's the policy and management deployment," Walsh says. "Sit down with the teams, make sure that they have a meeting of the minds on what the purpose is, why we're doing it and who's going to manage what segments of it."

There can be some hesitation when it comes to combining traffic from currently isolated networks.

"What are the security implications of adding Fibre Channel to an IP-driven environment?" Walsh asks. "That's always one of the big concerns storage administrators have expressed to us."

Operationally, IT shops should have no less management capability than they had before converging, Walsh notes. They should have the same, or at least a familiar set of tools to work with. It is, after all, Ethernet.

"If there's any Achilles' heel it would be the management tools," Walsh says. "The only real risk I see to adoption is that the management tools mature to the same level that IT managers have today. But I don't see anything that's going to disrupt this."

Nonetheless, the savings seem compelling: Customers are saving 30% to 50% in capital expenditures, 50% to 60% in blades and cooling, and 70% to 80% in cabling, Walsh says. And HP says two FCoE-enabled blades can replace up to 217 separate piece parts - Ethernet network interface cards, Fibre Channel Host Bus Adapters, etc. - with rack mount servers.

But that still may not be enough to sway the masses.

"The one thing ROI doesn't measure is stability," Walsh says. "IT guys put stability very, very high on their list of things. They've got to have another reason to move to take that stability risk. That's why these other external factors drive it more than the core ROI factors."

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