Converging Network Storage

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Time was, that if you wanted networked storage, you had to invest in Fibre Channel or Infiniband, a daunting prospect for all but the largest enterprises. Then came iSCSI, and suddenly there was a less-expensive alternative, although not as packed with features.


Now, it seems that those two worlds are colliding with a new generation of networking equipment that aims to bridge the divide between the various formats, allowing enterprises to deploy whichever system(s) makes the most technological and economic sense.


The movement kicked into high gear earlier this year with the introduction of the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) proposal. The idea is to provide a single Ethernet structure capable of delivering LAN, SAN and clustering traffic, while still retaining advanced FC functionality and built-in compatibility for the large community of FC users. Naturally, the iSCSI crowd cried foul, saying it was simply a delaying tactic to prevent FC users from switching over.


But the idea is gaining vendor support, led by arch-enemies Brocade and Cisco. The two have agreed to a basic frame format for FCoE that should soon lead to a chip implementation. Still up in the air, though, is whether FCoE will be ratified by the T11 group working on the Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE) standard.


It's possible that all these issues might be swept into the technology dustbin before too long, especially as virtualization migrates from servers and storage into the network. A start-up called Xsigo Systems has launched the VP780 I/O Director, a 4U virtual I/O switch that turns individual connections into multiple virtual network interface cards and host bus adapters. The device basically lets you run Fibre Channel SANs, 10 GbE LANS or Infiniband over the same cable.


With such a converged networking environment in the offing, hardware manufacturers are starting to build universal compatibility into their systems. NetApp, for example, uses SCSI drives for internal storage in the FAS 2020 and 2050 storage arrays, and Fibre Chanel or SATA for the expansion shelves. To the network, the devices can appear either as NAS filers, or FC or iSCSI block-level SANs.


And for those looking into optical networking, a company called XLoom Communications has released the iFlame optical chip designed for grid computing and data-center applications using Infiniband, Ethernet or Fibre Channel. The chip has four photodiodes, each capable of up to 5 Gbps, for a total throughput of 20 Gbps.


Improving network capabilities has always been about adding more processing power, storage and speed. With a future full of SOA applications, collaboration and other tools, flexibility likely will be just as important.