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The Steady March Toward Converged Networking

Arthur Cole

Converged networking is likely to become standard operating procedure in most data centers before too long now that new generations of server and storage technologies will have the capability built in.


Ultimately, it will make today's arguments over the relative merits of one storage network architecture over another seem a little silly because managers will have the ability to deploy multiple systems designed to meet specific infrastructure or data needs.


QLogic pushed this movement a little farther along this week with the release of the 8100 Series PCI-Express converged network adapter (CNA). The ASIC design is based on the company's Network Plus Architecture, which incorporates memory, processors and serializer/deserializers onto a single chip capable of handling 10 GbE line speeds and providing a Fibre Channel over Ethernet offload engine to boot. The company is targeting the system at blade servers and high-density storage systems due to its small size and low power consumption -- so low, in fact, that the design has no need for a heat sink.


The system comes on the heels of the OneConnect CNA from arch-rival Emulex, part of the company's Universal Converged Network Adapter (UCNA) platform. On news of the QLogic release, Emulex was quick to point out that the OneConnect is also a single-chip system, but it provides off-loading for Fibre Channel, iSCSI and RDMA -- so no matter what type of data is coming into or out of the server or storage system, the CPU gets a break.


Expect the usual tit-for-tat over the next few months as both firms battle it out for OEM contracts.


Does the off-loading issue really matter, though, considering that Fibre Channel is the more robust protocol and is therefore the one that needs off-loading to maintain performance? Perhaps, but as this article from Digi-Data Corp. CEO Tomlinson G. Rauscher points out, the newest Fibre Channel RAIDs are not all that superior to iSCSI systems -- save for the highest-end systems. Among the limiting factors are the fact that most RAID controllers are still too slow to handle FC's 100 Mbps speeds and current FC chips still lack general-purpose memory interfaces, inhibiting multi-disk functionality and real-time hardware parity capabilities.


But before I get caught up in another Fibre Channel vs. iSCSI battle, let me point out that both protocols are likely to thrive in the converged future because both have unique roles to play in the data center. Critical data will need the lossless environment provided by FC, while less vital data will do well on lower-cost iSCSI systems tied to their native Ethernet infrastructures.


This really is a win-win for everyone.


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