New Network Standard Could Converge Fiber, Ethernet

Leading IT vendors have proposed a new Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard to the T11 Committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The new FCoE specification is designed to let organizations transmit Storage Area Network (SAN) traffic over Ethernet networks, which would give organizations more flexible options for deploying and managing existing SANs.

Because the proposal for the Fiber Channel over Ethernet specification has the support of industry leading vendors, including Brocade, Cisco, EMC, Emulex, IBM, Intel, Nuova, QLogic and Sun Microsystems, there’s a good chance this standard will survive; however, the proposal is just the first of many steps before it would ever become approved as an official standard.

Less Loss

“The coolest thing about FCoE is that it will enable the consolidation of server I/O in the datacenter,” Doug Ingraham, senior director of product management for Brocade, told TechNewsWorld. “In today’s datacenter, servers must use dedicated hardware to support special purpose networks — Ethernet for client connectivity, Fiber Channel for storage connectivity, and optionally, a server interconnect network such as Infiniband for inter-processor communications. FCoE, particularly when combined with [superfast] 10-Gigabit Ethernet, enables the consolidation of server I/O into a unified datacenter fabric.”

Currently, Ethernet is widely used across most organizations, but it has trouble with data packet loss. Fiber Channel is more reliable.

“When you combine low latency with a very high speed network, you can tolerate some of the inefficiencies,” Wayne Adams, a senior technologist at EMC and two-term chair of the Storage Networking Industry Association, told TechNewsWorld. “You might have to retransmit once in a while, but when you have so much high speed capacity with low latency, it gets masked, that inefficiency. So what if I have to retransmit five more times because of a collision? You can retransmit so fast no one even notices that it happens.”

Adams related the potential benefit of FCoE to dedicated highways between cities, which let tractor-trailer rigs run side-by-side with cars, pickups and motorcycles. However, there is also a train system with dedicated tracks.

“If you think of taking a train and putting it on a flatbed truck and running it at high speed on the highways and getting it there, at some point in time you may not need those dedicated rails. It’s just repackaging,” Adams explained. “On the flip side, you see tractor-trailers going on the back of train flatbeds between two points really quick. So what do you get out of it? You see more highways today than rail lines. So it’s all about the convergence of common infrastructure, to let you share more types of things on the same [Ethernet] infrastructure.”

Who’s First in Line?

“If a customer has just Ethernet and wants to add more storage, presumably today he’s doing it with iSCSI or Network Attached Storage (NAS). He may look at this and say, ‘I don’t want another storage network to deal with. I want to stay with iSCSI and NAS,’ and that’s fine,” Renato Recio, chief engineer for IBM eSystem Networks, told TechNewsWorld. “But another customer could say, ‘I can leverage that Fibre Channel networking infrastructure that’s been developed over the last 15 years.’ And some will probably do that.”

Most enterprise customers will wait for this technology to get vetted out, and that early adopters will be high performance computing customers first, Recio added.

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