Say what you will about lower-cost iSCSI storage networks, the folks at Emulex say the future belongs to Fibre Channel.
I had a chat with Emulex' EVP of worldwide marketing, Mike Smith, in the wake of the company's new alliance with Cisco and VMware and launch of the 8 Gbps Virtual HBA, and this is the state of enterprise networking as he sees it:
First of all, he said both blade servers and virtualization are driving Fibre Channel from a backend database and mission-critical solution toward more front-end, non-critical applications like print and file serving. The advent of Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) makes it the clear choice because it allows existing FC customers to leverage their SANs for more general-use purposes.
"We see an opportunity to extend our business into the Ethernet through FCoE," Smith said. "Customers can leverage the SAN model that exists across the enterprise today and map that to the Ethernet that IT professionals are comfortable with."
That's where the arrangement with Cisco and VMware comes in. With VMware taking care of virtualization on the server and Cisco the rest of the network, Emulex came up with a way to virtualize the host bus adapter (HBA) that connects the two so that each virtual machine, not just each server, has access to what it thinks is a dedicated Fibre Channel port with unique connectivity attributes.
"By introducing virtual HBA technology, we created a much more flexible way for storage devices and switches to look into the server," Smith said. "We allow them to look directly into the virtual machine, rather than just the physical server port of a year ago."
At the moment, Emulex is using the 4 Gbps LightPulse HBA with VMware and Cisco technology, but the new 8 Gbps Virtual HBA should be good to go by the fall.
So when you pull all of this together, you'll have a unified LAN/SAN that cuts down on everything from power consumption and cabling to the number of ports on every server. You'll also be able to manage things like server loads from anywhere you have Ethernet access.
Of course, that much traffic will at least require 10 GbE connectivity, plus associated technology to keep various traffic segments from interfering with each other, but the march to 10 GbE is already under way and is likely to play out over the next decade or so.
And where does iSCSI fit into all this? Smith said he's seen some interest for lower-tier applications, but since 10G NICs are likely to be priced around the same as Fibre Channel anyway, use will probably be limited -- and even then, only if newer iSCSI systems can provide sufficient offload and performance capabilities.
There's a lot to like in this scenario, but as they say, the devil is in the details. With data demands going up, will 10G be enough to handle storage, networking, control and the like? Is security robust enough to put your business' family jewels that close to the Internet? The people who want to sell you product offer their assurances. But the only way to know for sure is to see this technology in the real world.