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End-to-End FCoE: Still Some Work to Be Done?

Arthur Cole

For a long time, it seemed iSCSI was going to have Fibre Channel for lunch as the storage networking protocol of choice for the vast majority of small and medium-sized enterprises out there. The thinking was that iSCSI, as an Ethernet protocol, was cheaper and easier to deploy and provided service that was good enough, save for the most demanding environments.


But take a look at what happened. Fibre Channel is now available on Ethernet as well, and it seems to be giving iSCSI a run for its money as the preferred solution across a range of enterprise types and sizes. Now, we have the release of an end-to-end Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) solution from Cisco and NetApp, promising an even more streamlined networking infrastructures coupled with the advanced storage management solutions that Fibre Channel is known for.


But is this really the solution we've been waiting for?


First off, it should be noted that the system, which has already been certified by VMware, goes a long way toward reducing upfront capital costs. Independent consultant David Chernicoff points out that we should see more of these types of turnkey solutions for virtualized environments in the future. And the recent ratification of 40G and 100G Ethernet solutions should provide a platform that is more than capable of handling the increased data loads that those environments should generate.


And there's really not much to complain about in the Cisco/NetApp system. It combines the Cisco Nexus 5000 switch with NetApp's FAS series storage array, both supporting FCoE in the VMware vSphere environment. The package is part of a long-standing collaborative effort between the three companies that brings together technologies, channel partners, system integrators and others to create integrated data center architectures.


The only problem here might be the use of the term "end-to-end," according to The Register's Chris Mellor. He notes that the system does not support FCoE through the core switch, which means the FC packets have to be separated from Ethernet traffic and sent to the array via multiple hops. Ultimately, this will be resolved once Cisco brings FCoE into its FabricPath switching systems that supports the multi-hop TRILL (Transparent Interconnect of Lots of Lines) protocol. But even here, it appears that FabricPath will only be available on the Nexus 7000 switch, not the 5000. You'll still be able to drive FCoE from the server CNA to the array, but it won't be as streamlined an architecture as a TRILL-enabled system would be.


In any endeavor, success is rarely total. And the fact that Fibre Channel now has a means to run the length of an Ethernet environment alongside iSCSI goes a long way toward keeping the protocol at the forefront of enterprise networking. True, that is a step down from its former position as a storage network platform in its own right, but in terms of delivering the kind of features and functionality that enterprises users have come to rely on, it's the best game in town.


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