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Wading through the FCoE and data center network fabric hype

Shamus McGillicuddy

Most data center networking vendors at Interop 2011 conceded that Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), Transparent Interconnections of Lots of Links (TRILL), Shortest Path Bridging and some other hot buzzwords are overhyped.

The Interop 2011 panel, "How should you redesign your data center LAN?" turned into an exorcism of marketing buzzword demons, as representatives from Force10 Networks, Extreme Networks, Arista Networks, Juniper Networks and HP Networking faced questions about marketing hype versus reality from moderators and audience members who had been blasted with spin for days at the conference.

During the session, not a single vendor was willing to stand up and argue that FCoE would take anyone to the promised land.

"FCoE reminds me a lot of Token Ring over ISL," said Doug Gourlay, vice president of marketing at Arista Networks. "It's taking one closed system and shoving it into an Ethernet frame, transporting it to its destination and transferring it back into a closed system on the other end. I see much larger growth in global file systems, NFS, NAS and iSCSI. I worry when I see a lot of vendors chasing what Cisco did on FCoE."

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Cisco, a leading proponent of FCoE, wasn't on the panel to defend its FCoE story, but other vendors that do support FCoE seemed reluctant to argue strongly for FCoE as a game-changer.

"Fibre Channel over Ethernet is a great concept and  is starting to push the industry to do things a little bit better," said Jeff Kabel, technical marketing engineer at HP. “It's forcing us to develop data center bridging to create pseudo-lossless Ethernet. That's a good start. But we're seeing a lot of other technologies getting up there, like iSCSI. FCoE will have its play as time goes on, but the biggest thing is maintaining your existing investment with Fibre Channel. This allows you to leverage that."

Calvin Chai, director of enterprise marketing for Juniper Networks, asked attendees at the Interop sessions to reveal in a show of hands how many are actively pursuing FCoE in the data center. Only six or seven hands went up in a packed room of hundreds of engineers.

Gourlay, a former Cisco executive, explained the FCoE phenomenon this way: "The entire goal of data center bridging, Fibre Channel over Ethernet and TRILL, when first conceived under Data Center Ethernet, was to churn the install base—to create a reason to get people off the Catalyst 6500 and upgrade to the next generation of products."

Translation: Cisco needed to sell more hardware. That statement prompted an audience member to blurt out: "Somebody finally said it!"

Vendors also conceded that TRILL and Shortest Path Bridging—IETF and IEEE's respective competing standards for eliminating spanning tree and enabling multi-pathing in the data center—are both overhyped and not necessarily panaceas for today's data center challenges. Shehzad Merchant, vice president of technology at Extreme Networks, said multichassis link aggregation (MLAG) can solve some of the same problems TRILL and Shortest Path Bridging attempt to solve in many environments.

TRILL and Shortest Path Bridging "take things in the right direction, but they don't get you to the finish line," said Juniper's Chai. "If you want to start a data center from scratch, you want something that can scale very elegantly, but you wouldn't want to have to deal with the complexity of protocols to manage different link states. And as far as I can tell, these standards don't support Layer 3."

When John Repucci, infrastructure architect at Boston Scientific, asked if the term "fabric" is just another hyped up marketing term for an extended backplane, Gourlay of Arista enthusiastically panned the term as pure hype, but others hedged a bit.

"I'm not going to get into a fabric war here," said Chai, whose employer Juniper is one of the biggest proponents of data center network fabric with QFabric.

"I think it would be important, term aside, to think about what you want your network to achieve. Do you want any-to-any connectivity? Do you want it to scale elegantly without adding complexity? Do you want to maintain a certain degree of operational efficiency? Take a look at what fabrics are out there and see what's right for you. From that perspective it becomes a more black and white question, rather than marketing."

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

To learn more about Interop, view our 2011 Interop Las Vegas conference page.


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