FCoE on the Launch Pad

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Fibre Channel over Ethernet is coming to an enterprise near you this fall, but the questions remains: is it the customers that need it, or vendors that want it?


Expect to see a heavy push for FCoE from Cisco, Emulex and other supporters in the last quarter and heading into 2009. The final standard has not yet emerged from the IEEE, but it is far enough along for vendors to start rolling out demo products.


A recent test drive among leading manufacturers, primarily QLogic, Cisco and NetApp, showed 100 percent compatibility between FCoE and existing Fibre Channel infrastructures, which view the new signals as simply another FC network. This was a crucial milestone, considering poor integration with existing networks could effectively kill the new format.


Actual products are slated to make their entrances between now and the end of the year. Hitachi Data Systems is talking about FCoE and 8 Gbps Fibre Channel as major components in its 2009 strategy. And Cisco systems is already beta testing its Nexus 5000 FCoE switch, with full purchase orders expected by August.


Firms like Cisco and Emulex are banking a lot on FCoE, primarily as the means to an Ethernet-based unified fabric in the data center. For Cisco, the goal is to leverage FCoE as a means to roll out more 10 GbE products, the argument being that a single FCoE card can replace separate 10 GbE and 8 Gb Fibre Channel cards, halving connectivity costs. Emulex uses largely the same language in pressing the case for its LP21000 line of FCoE adapters.


Only Brocade has shown any signs of caution when it comes to FCoE, and even then, only when it comes to the timing. The company has largely written off 2009 as the demo year for FCoE, with real sales not taking off until 2010. The company is also circling Cisco around the concept of unified fabrics, with both companies offering a mix of FCoE, Lossless Ethernet, Data Center Bridging, Converged Enhanced Ethernet, and a host of other initiatives.


But as I've pointed out before, there is a real questions as to whether Ethernet, and by extension FCoE, will prove to be the winning formula for data center connectivity. Infiniband is already pushing the 20 Gbps level and is well on the way to a 40 Gbps version. Those kinds of bandwidths are certainly capable of carrying Ethernet, Fibre Channel, voice, video and anything else that comes down the pipe. And there is even talk of extending Infiniband over the wide area.


The dollars at stake in this coming struggle are likely to be huge. Enterprises across the board are looking to simplify their data networks, both to save money and to take full advantage of their rapidly expanding virtual environments.


But we probably won't know who has the best technology, or who offers the best price/performance, until all of these proposals gain some real world experience.