FCoE: From fee to free

FCoE is now often bundled with 10G Ethernet gear for free due to market indifference and immaturity.

With demand for FCoE more sluggish than vendors had hoped, 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch and adapter makers are making it available for free.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is a standard driven largely by Cisco to converge customers’ data center LAN and storage fabrics with 10G Ethernet. Industry heavyweights Intel and Brocade are among those now giving away FCoE capabilities.

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There are several factors prompting vendors to slash FCoE prices or stop charging for it altogether, including market indifference; technological immaturity; competing alternatives, such as virtualized Fibre Channel and Ethernet I/O; the recession; and vendors looking to drive switch volumes.

“When FCoE first came out there used to be a fairly large price premium,” says Alan Weckel, director of Dell’Oro Group. “Cisco had to give it away for free to drive switch volumes. Users were not adopting as rapidly as thought or that Cisco had hoped for.”

Cisco first introduced FCoE on its Nexus 5000 top-of-rack data center switch in 2008. Entry-level pricing was $900 per port, but a version tested a year ago cost $67,030, or $2,400 per port.

Cisco insists it still charges for FCoE on the Nexus 5000, but would not say how much. The company also says it is pleased with the uptake in FCoE since unveiling the Nexus 5000.

“Since Cisco and its partners first announced FCoE capabilities three years ago, we have seen rapid growth in industry and market acceptance for a unified fabric approach,” said Jackie Ross, vice president, Cisco Server Access and Virtualization Group.  “We have a 33% FCoE attach rate on our Nexus 5000 10-Gigabit Ethernet access switches and all supported adapters on our Unified Computing System platform are 10-Gigabit Ethernet Converged Network Adapters or CNAs, supporting FCoE, iSCSI, NAS and native Fibre Channel.”

And despite the low cost for FCoE, Dell’Oro notes a 72% compound annual growth rate in FCoE revenue over the next five years – from $180 million in 2010 to $2.7 billion in 2015. But in actuality, FCoE switch revenue is a subset of overall 10G Ethernet revenue, which is currently about $5 billion, according to Dell’Oro.

“Port shipments for adapters and switches have exceeded what we projected for 2010, but prices have come in lower,” says Tam Dell’Oro, founder and president of Dell’Oro Group.

BACKGROUND: Ethernet data center standards

Indeed, there is virtually no difference in the average selling price of FCoE switch ports and plain vanilla 10G Ethernet switch ports, according to Dell’Oro.  In 2010, the ASP of an FCoE switch port was $475, dropping to a projected $169 in 2015; for 10G, the ASP of a switch port was $442 in 2010, dropping to a projected $178 in 2015.

The slightly higher differential in price for 10G over FCoE in 2015 – and in years 2011 to 2014 – is due to the higher concentration of fiber ports for non-FCoE 10G. As a server access convergence technology, FCoE will have more copper deployments, Dell’Oro’s Weckel says.

Infonetics Research also forecasts FCoE switches to be a $2 billion market in 2014 from a barely detectable market in 2009, and that FCoE will eventually overtake Fibre Channel. But it will take eight to 10 years for this to occur due to challenges cracking Fibre Channel’s solid installed base.

The ASP of FCoE adapters, meanwhile, will drop from $308 in 2010 to $138 in 2015. Intel recently announced that it will bundle FCoE on its X520 10G adapters at no additional cost.

Brocade, the market leader in Fibre Channel SANs, says it’s been doing that on its converged network adapters (CNA) for nine months now. Brocade also offers FCoE on its 8000 series switches for no added fee. On its VDX 6720 switch, Brocade says FCoE costs extra, but would not say what the price is.

“We’re seeing demand increase but we’re not seeing the same uptick as Dell’Oro is seeing,” says Doug Ingraham, vice president of data center products at Brocade. “We’re seeing the downward side of the hype curve with FCoE. We’re starting to see customer skepticism come in.”

Ingraham says FCoE still needs “hardening and maturing” before it can be deployed for mission-critical data center applications. He says there are still a lot of questions that have to be addressed with the technology, such as management, diagnosis and troubleshooting of FCoE implementations; and when best to deploy it to converge data and storage, vs. keeping data and storage separate.

“It comes down to best practices,” Ingraham says. “(Customers) still may separate storage and data networks for management. There are some cases where convergence makes sense and some where separation makes sense.”

Cisco says FCoE makes sense at the server network access point because 80% of the consolidation cost savings of a unified fabric – less adapters and cabling -- occur there.  Cisco’s recently announced Nexus 5500 switch is designed to allow any port to be configured as 10G Ethernet, supporting FCoE, iSCSI and NAS, or native Fibre Channel.  

“We believe the 10-Gigabit Ethernet transport is the underlying key to providing the flexibility which allows IT organizations to wire once, and then mount any type of storage to their computing infrastructure,” Cisco’s Ross says. “More customers are moving to a unified fabric approach because it delivers greater data center efficiency, simplifies management and can accelerate the deployment of virtualization and cloud-based services.”

Dell’Oro believes FCoE is a “no brainer” inside blade server chassis.

“It has no complexities such as interoperation among multiple suppliers, and server operating systems,” Dell’Oro says.  “FCoE connects the server to the FCoE switch inside the blade server chassis and then the switch sends it out in either Ethernet or Fibre Channel -- something that all equipment understands. (And) instead of needing both an Ethernet switch and a Fibre Channel switch inside the blade server chassis, users will only need one switch -- thereby freeing up a slot in the blade server.”

Weckel believes 40G Ethernet on servers will help FCoE adoption at that level too by addressing the bandwidth disparity between Fibre Channel – 4Gbps and 8Gbps – and 10G Ethernet. Beyond server access, standards such as TRILL and Shortest Path Bridging are being defined that may help scale FCoE deeper into the core of data center networks and out into the cloud, and provide one physical point of access between a core switch and storage arrays.

Weckel expects to see “decent volumes” -- $100 million or more – of FCoE on modular core switches like Cisco’s Nexus 7000 in 2012.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.