FCoE Hype Still Outpaces Reality

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The promise of Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is that of a converged data center, where storage joins applications and voice systems over an Ethernet connection. For many in IT, it may be what the future holds. But in the here and now, the reality is that FCoE has yet to meet that promise. The technology is still costly and does not provide the essential end-to-end functionality required in enterprise data centers.

Earlier predictions pegged late 2010 for widespread adoption of FCoE, but that has yet to materialize.

At the moment, “the market penetration rate is pretty much a round-off error,” said Joe Skorupa, research vice president of data center transformation at Gartner. That’s due in large part to the fact that FCoE-enabled hardware is just starting to hit the market. For example, major storage vendors like HP (NYSE: HPQ) and IBM (NYSE: IBM) are still in the early stages of announcing FCoE-capable hardware.

“The majority of servers are rack-optimized, and they’re still shipping with Gigabit Ethernet on the motherboard,” Skorupa said. “Gigabit Ethernet doesn’t support FCoE.”

This year “is the year to kick the tires,” said Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). “The most available FCoE technology today is top-of-rack.” Laliberte said users are buying converged network adapters (CNAs) and switches and testing top-of-rack configurations.

Achieving end-to-end FCoE, however, is still a challenge. “NetApp (NASDAQ: NTAP) just announced end-to-end FCoE, but it’s not multi-hop, and it’s a fairly limited configuration,” said Laliberte.

FCoE standards aren’t fully ratified yet either, but the bigger stumbling block is support, according to Laliberte. “When people start adopting FCoE is when major vendors certify it and agree to support it.”

Plus, when it comes to FCoE, there’s more to consider than technology alone. “The technology part is easy,” said Laliberte. “It’s the people and process changes that are hard, and the cultural shifts.” Skorupa agreed: “The storage guys don’t intend to work for the Ethernet guys. They know there are going to be winners and losers, and neither side wants to be the loser.”

That organizational tension will play a big role in putting both SAN and LAN traffic on Ethernet.

Still, considering it’s an emerging technology, FCoE has come a long way quickly in just a few years, said Laliberte. “It’s been really fast to get things to market if you look at the inception to today.” The storage side of any technology does tend to lag behind, he said – usually switches come first, then network cards, then storage catches up.

“What’s going to help with adoption will be costs coming down,” said Laliberte. “And getting the full functionality of end-to-end will also be a driving factor in implementation, especially in production environments.”

Despite the adoption lag, the storage networking vendors continue to push FCoE-capable switching platforms as they attempt to propel the technology out of its nascent state. This week Brocade (NASDAQ: BRCD) announced the Brocade Network Advisor (BNA), a unified management platform for all of its Fibre Channel and Ethernet networking products and Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) unveiled the Nexus 5548 switch with Unified Port technology.

Even when FCoE does make a bigger splash in the market – probably next year – it won’t necessarily be a full-service solution. The idea of a full converged network backbone may arrive “in the long term, if ever,” according to Skorupa. “It doesn’t save money, it doesn’t make it easier, and it causes more complicated organizational issues.”

FCoE isn’t the only method to converge networks. There are lots of ways to consolidate I/O. “You can converge storage and Ethernet using iSCSI and it works just fine,” Skorupa said. He also cited consolidating storage with NAS rather than block storage as an option. “And you don’t need CNAs to do that,” he said.

With the right adapters, network convergence can happen even in highly virtualized environments. Skorupa also noted that there are data centers successfully using Infiniband, mixed IOs or PCI Express for IO convergence.

“The real win will be getting around a single technology, not a single network,” said Skorupa. “But nothing happens overnight when you’ve got Fibre Channel’s $15 billion install base.”

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