FCoE network roadmap: Do you need a unified fabric strategy?

Some vendors are coming to the table with FCoE network roadmaps, but others are still releasing switches that can't necessarily support any converged enhanced Ethernet protocol in the data center. Should you be demanding a unified fabric strategy from your vendor?

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Is it time for you to ask your data center networking vendor for a Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and converged Ethernet product roadmap? It depends on who you ask.

Cisco Systems and Brocade have been releasing products that support FCoE for well over a year now, and it's no surprise. After all, they own most of the Fibre Channel market.

"The ones who are really pushing FCoE are the vendors [that] have a vested interest in Fibre Channel and want to remain relevant when storage traffic moves to Ethernet," said Andrew Reichman, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

Maybe not FCoE, but a unified fabric strategy, please!

Reichman said enterprises should be asking their data center networking vendors a more general question: How can you help me converge onto a single network fabric in the data center?

"The overall goal is to be using the same network for SAN and LAN," he said. "It doesn't have to be FCoE. iSCSI is much more open and uses standard Ethernet without requiring big upgrades and changes to the existing network."

Enterasys misses the mark on a unified fabric strategy?>/p>

This week Enterasys Networks launched its new S Series switches, a modular set of terabit-class Ethernet switches designed to fit anywhere in the network from the core to the edge. But the release includes zero mention of FCoE. Is this a glaring weakness or simply a strategic choice? Enterasys claims that its architecture is optimized for iSCSI, converged Ethernet and virtualization, but its converged Ethernet strategy isn't concrete enough for industry analysts.

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"Enterasys might be a little weak with the S Series in places like virtualization and converged Ethernet in the data center," said Steve Schuchart, principal analyst for Current Analysis. "That's something they're going to have to work on because when we look at the future data center, we're not looking at running multiple networks in there anymore. There will be no Fibre Cannel. No Infiniband. Nothing but Ethernet. They're going to have to address FCoE. I'm not saying they need to build a product that does FCoE translation. They just need to be able to work with it."

It's still not clear, Reichman said, whether FCoE and converged Ethernet is really going to take off, and it's also unclear whether FCoE offers a big benefit.

"The question to ask is: Does FCoE really represent a benefit or not?" he said. "Today, it only covers the edge. It only covers the server side, so you can have a single CNA [converged network adapter] or two CNAs in a server instead of two HBAs and two NICs. And if you use a top-of-rack switch, you can reduce the cabling. Is there really a big benefit? I don't know, because you still have to connect into an FC switch to pass the traffic to a storage array. It's going be some time before anybody has end-to-end FCoE where the storage arrays are actually connecting to a core Ethernet switch."

Vendors like Enterasys, Force10 Networks and others would have to make a tremendous investment to have a credible FCoE story. Instead, they might be best served to develop further their capabilities with storage protocols that can run over standard Ethernet, Reichman said.

"Realistically, what they could do would be to invest in iSCSI and the NFS [Network File System] side of storage technology," he said. "What they could do with that is some architecture support and best practice support for users that are building out Ethernet-based storage networks on standard Ethernet."

Vendors slow to develop an FCoE network roadmap

That may be a strategy for some data center networking vendors, but others besides Cisco and Brocade are likely to go the FCoE route. Juniper Networks, a rising force in the data center switching market, hasn't started talking about an FCoE story, "but everyone is expecting them to," said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president at Yankee Group. "Their Stratus announcement alludes to the fact that they will, although they didn't come out and say it."

Kerravala agreed that FCoE and converged Ethernet are still pretty far down the road and most enterprises aren't ready to adopt it yet. "But if you can't roadmap to it, it's difficult to explain to customers how you're going to get there."

Some of these vendors clearly know that they need to deliver these capabilities to their data center networking customers. As proof of that, Force10 Networks recently posted a job opening for an "FCoE/converged Ethernet architect," a position that would report to CTO Bruce Miller's office.

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Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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