Does FCoE Help or Hurt Fibre Channel?

Arthur Cole

Will Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) enhance or eat away at existing Fibre Channel infrastructure in the data center?

Despite protestations to the contrary, the possibility of a rapidly eroding Fibre Channel network industry continues to rear its ugly head as the scramble toward storage network consolidation gets under way.

Recent estimates published by the Dell'Oro Group have FCoE gaining a stronger enterprise foothold than traditional Fibre Channel as early as 2011. Contrary to the stated expectations of some Fibre Channel hardware makers, the group sees FCoE as the major alternative, not supplement, to FC in the unified fabric.

It's not hard to see why FCoE has the upper hand here, according to Walter Dey, a member of the SNIA Europe's board of directors. The protocol allows you to combine SAN connectivity and client/server and server/server messaging onto a single network. So not only do you reduce hardware costs, power consumption, heat generation and cabling, but you avoid having to devote substantial amounts of manpower to manage these multiple networks. And you get to do this not by creating an entirely new network infrastructure, but by leveraging the Ethernet you already have.

It's no surprise, then, that we're seeing such broad adoption of FCoE in the storage vendor community. NetApp, for one, has gone so far as to offer native FCoE using the Qlogic 8100 system on its leading FAS and 3100 series platforms, which will cut down on the need to deploy FC HBAs on each storage array.

Meanwhile, Fibre Channel is still finding a fan base among disk drive manufacturers, and the technology is finding a home among the newest enterprise entrants: SSDs. STEC recently launched its third-generation ZeusIOPS device, which sports 4 Gb FC connectivity capable of 380/300 MBps read/write performance. The 3.5-inch drive supports both single-level cell (SLC) for faster I/O, and multi-level cell (MLC) for more capacity.

In that way, Fibre Channel will live on, but only as another Ethernet layer. FCoE supporters say it will provide all the performance and management functionality of a dedicated network, but that will depend largely on the state of your Ethernet. 10 GbE is said to be the base level for seamless performance, and so far it seems both technologies working together are capable of handling real-world, high-volume environments.

The proof is in the pudding, however, and we won't know for certain whether FCoE is up to the job until real-world deployments hit the mainstream.

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