Fibre Channel and Ethernet: From Enemies to Best Buds

Arthur Cole

If Ali and Frazier could patch things up, I guess it shouldn't come as any surprise that Fibre Channel and Ethernet are getting along so well these days. In fact, it seems like these two protocols need each other more than ever at the moment, surprising many who were witness to the sometimes testy FC vs. iSCSI/Ethernet debates of the previous decade.

According to the latest research, the Fibre Channel industry's decision to re-invent itself as an Ethernet protocol has boosted sales of both formats as enterprises work to unify their network infrastructures. The Dell'Oro Group reports that the FCoE market is on pace to see a whopping 300 percent growth rate this year, while sales of 10 GbE adapters and controllers are looking at 50 percent growth. All that additional storage traffic has forced enterprises to either widen their pipelines or face service disruptions.

A key driver in all this is the cloud. As more data and applications migrate to cloud architectures, both internal and external, the pressure is on to streamline physical infrastructure as much as possible. This is evident in new computing fabrics like Brocade's CloudPlex. The platform now provides what the company calls Virtual Compute Blocks that allow partners like Dell and EMC to craft cloud-ready systems using Brocade's Ethernet and Fibre Channel fabrics. The less on-site integration between servers, storage and networking, the quicker enterprises can deploy advanced cloud architectures.

The virtualization layer also has a vested interest in converged data center infrastructure. In its new vSphere 5 platform, VMware has added support for the Open FCoE protocol, providing instant compatibility with 10 GbE adapters and simplifying the deployment of unified NAS, iSCSI and FCoE LAN infrastructure. Note that this allows convergence to take place on standard 10 GbE adapters rather than the more expensive converged network adapter (CNAs).

To many, however, the advent of FCoE represents the eventual demise of Fibre Channel itself. If that were to come to pass, ZDNet's Manek Dubash wonders what would make a suitable replacement. Considering the cloud is more amenable to NAS infrastructure than SAN, perhaps enterprises take a fresh look at ATA-over-Ethernet. AoE has already been added to the Linux kernel, allowing users to drop TCP altogether and tap ATA disks directly. On the downside, ATA disks are not as fast as iSCSI and AoE can't be routed directly. Of course, you can also make those same arguments against FCoE.

At the moment, however, it appears that Ethernet and FCoE will remain the IT equivalent of chocolate and peanut butter. Enterprises are desperate to simplify their infrastructure, but they also are loathe to junk their legacy equipment just yet.

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