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Converged enhanced Ethernet: In the rack today; in the core someday

Cisco and now Blade Network Technologies both have top-of-rack converged enhanced Ethernet (CEE) and FCoE switch technology, but FCoE and data center bridging aren't yet ready for the core, unless you're a Voltaire customer. Cisco has announced that CEE and FCoE will be available in its core Nexus 7000, but the features are still not here. Customers are forming their CEE and FCoE strategies while they wait.

When Blade Network Technologies recently introduced its vision for converged enhanced Ethernet and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), it served as a reminder that there is a big difference between what enterprises can do with converged enhanced Ethernet and (FCoE) today and what they will be able to do with them in the future.

Today, converged enhanced Ethernet (CEE), also known as data center bridging, is largely confined to the server rack, oriented around consolidating the number of cables and adapters that are plugged into servers from five or six down to two. A top-of-rack switch consolidates both storage and traditional data network traffic onto one fabric (CEE) and provides two redundant links to each server. This saves on cabling and energy costs and simplifies management.

Cisco Systems has had this capability on the market since it introduced its Nexus 5000 switches in the spring of 2008. Now, with its new Unified FabricArchitecture vision, Blade Network Technologies, a specialist in top-of-rack and blade-chassis network switches, has a competing technology.

Converged enhanced Ethernet a server rack at a time

Blade's Unified FabricArchitecture consolidates network and storage traffic on CEE and FCoE in the rack, and it has software that integrates with VMware to provide virtualization automation.

"It's a horizontal, multi-vendor solution primarily focused on the edge of the network, in the blade chassis and top-of-rack," said Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Gartner. "And then the core network can be provided by whoever the company's core network vendor of choice would be."

"Unified FabricArchitecture enables an Ethernet-everywhere type of approach, and it also encourages customers to look at Ethernet infrastructure a rack at a time versus a server at a time," said Blade Network Technologies CEO Vikram Mehta. "If you're deploying your infrastructure a rack at a time, you can have a bunch of pizza-box servers in that rack, and you can have some storage servers and blade server systems. And you can tie all that together through a top-of-rack box and then replicate that model across your data centers."

Moreo on converged enhanced Ethernet and FCoE
Should your vendor have a converged enhanced Ethernet strategy by now?

Converged enhanced Ethernet protocols are on the way.

With the Nexus 7000 Cisco aims to conquer the data center with on fabric.

With this rack-based approach, the storage area network (SAN) persists in the data center, but it doesn't reach all the way to the servers. Instead, it plugs into the Ethernet switch, which sends storage and data traffic on the same CEE to the servers.

This approach is somewhat similar to Cisco's capabilities with its Nexus 5000 switch. However, while Blade's new technology collaborates with VMware's virtual switches, Cisco has introduced its Nexus 1000v, an embedded virtual switch that replaces VMware's switch. Skorupa said this is part of Cisco's long-term vision to own a customer's entire data center, from the core to the edge. While Blade promises customers that it will integrate seamlessly with core network switches from any other vendor, Cisco will encourage customers with the Nexus 5000 to go ahead and buy its newest core switch, Nexus 7000.

Scrapping the SAN and running storage and data on one converged enhanced Ethernet network

"Cisco's approach is really clear: complete vertical integration," Skorupa said. "They want to own the customer and control the account, and they want to lock out any competitors. They want to sell you the top-of-rack switches and their core switches and their servers and their embedded switches [such as the Nexus 1000v]."

Although some have dubbed the Nexus 7000 a souped-up Catalyst 6500, this newer core switch will eventually support CEE and FCoE, allowing enterprises to scrap their storage area networks [SAN] and and converge both server and storage traffic directly into the Ethernet core switch.

"Cisco's view is that you can throw away your storage area network and run everything over converged enhanced Ethernet," Skorupa said. "Cisco says you can run one single converged network, and their argument is that it's simpler, less expensive to buy, and less expensive to manage."

It's been two years since the Nexus 7000 was announced, however, and the CEE and FCoE features still haven't been released. Cisco has promised they will be available later this year. Right now, the only core switch on the market that supports converged enhanced Ethernet is the Vantage 8500 from Voltaire, a 288-port 10-Gigabit Ethernet switch with a stacking capability that allows enterprises to run several of them as a single-switching fabric with up to 3,400 ports.

This consolidation onto CEE will also require cooperation from storage device vendors like EMC, which must allow for FCoE adapters on their storage devices. Once that happens, Ethernet could rule the entire data center.

While customers wait for these shifts to happen and for Cisco to bring CEE and FCoE to the Nexus 7000, some are moving ahead with a data-center-bridging strategy in anticipation. Greg Catalano, senior IT specialist at Boise Inc., an Idaho paper manufacturer, said his company is preparing to adopt the Nexus 7000 and 5000 in its data center.

"Right now, we have six separate [Enterasys Networks N Series] backbone switches scattered through the data center on separate physical networks, and then it's all handled through Layer 3 VLANs," Catalano said. "The goal is to collapse all that down to two [Nexus 7000s]. Each server will have two FCoE adapters and each adapter will be pointing to a separate Nexus 7000. We would VLAN in a way where the [storage network] would traverse the same physical wire as the [traditional data network]. This would reduce our cabling, reduce the number of [switches] we have, and provide a full and redundant configuration that we don't have today."

The company's SANs will be managed by a pair of Nexus 5000 switches, which will uplink to the Nexus 7000s, he said. And as the company replaces legacy servers with FCoE-enabled servers, those new rack servers will also connect directly to the Nexus 5000s.

Boise is only testing the Nexus 5000 right now, however, because the Nexus 7000 is on back order.

"Right now we're testing FCoE," Catalano said. "We've got a Nexus 5000 in evaluation mode, and we've got a couple of servers and a Compellent storage system attached to that using QLogic adapters. We don't even have our Nexus 7000 yet. We ordered that in December and our product is not expected to ship until March. That's how far behind they are in their manufacturing. But that's good for us because it's given us time to bat around the idea of whether we do iSCSI or stay with Fibre Channel."

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

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