The Long Road to Network Convergence

Arthur Cole

Network convergence is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of data center architectural efficiency. And like many stories surrounding the mythical chalice, there is invariably a long and arduous quest to obtain it.

It's safe to say that network convergence to date has been spotty. Vendor solutions have been hitting the channel at a steady clip but they have so far failed to garner significant market penetration. The reasons being that (a) convergence is generally a daunting proposition involving not only an upgrade to 10 GbE but then deployment of expensive Converged Network Adapter (CNA) and other technologies; and (b) once you have convergence there are a number of thorny management and manpower issues to work out.

Even the most talked-about form of convergence, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), has had trouble getting off the launch pad. Enterprise Strategy Group estimates that about 9 percent of enterprises have adopted FCoE in one form or another and predicts that number could move to 26 percent by 2013. To be fair, FCoE deployments can only realistically happen in 10 GbE environments, which ESG says is on pace to hit nearly 50 percent of the market within two years.

So while many enterprises are not yet in a position to implement full convergence until they get their underlying network infrastructures in place, that is not necessarily a bad thing. For one, it gives the FCoE industry a chance to perfect the technology before it goes into wide circulation. Broadcom, for example, claims to have made a major leap forward in FCoE performance with its latest single ASIC platform. It provides a top speed of 1.7 million IOPS, which the company says is 80 percent faster than previous solutions. Look for it in Dell's 57712-k daughter card and on Cisco's BCM57712 adapter.

Network convergence is also expected to go hand in hand with virtualization and hardware consolidation as enterprises try to streamline their infrastructures to meet increasingly stringent power and data efficiency goals. To that end, the race is on to integrate convergence solutions into leading virtual environments.

Emulex, for example, recently gained certification for its OneConnect CNA and LightPulse HBA on VMware's vSphere 5 platform. The idea is to allow organizations to more closely match application workloads to the appropriate storage and network protocols, which in turn should enable a more efficient use of available physical resources. Part of the integration is a plug-in for the OneCommand Manager onto the vCenter Server management system, which allows direct access to networking components through the virtual management stack.

It's safe to say that convergence will happen, but not overnight. Legacy networks that have been built up over time tend to take on lives of their own and don't always take kindly to well-intentioned, but nonetheless disruptive overhauls.

And that's the uncomfortable truth in all this, because the true benefits of convergence won't be felt until the underlying technology has been deployed across the entire network infrastructure.

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