Cisco, VMware, NetApp Claim First End-to-End FCoE Configuration

Cisco, NetApp and VMware said they have certified their products to create a single, end-to-end Fibre Channel over Ethernet network that can handle virtual server traffic as well as high-speed data storage transport.

Networking, storage and virtualization vendors Cisco , NetApp, and VMware on Wednesday announced what they said is the first certified end-to-end Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) storage network for VMware server environments.

In related news, Oracle is also offering its own end-to-end certified FCoE solution.

"What this means for customers is they are able to build on a consolidated data center fabric with the ability to mount their servers and virtual machines to any type of storage device, whether it's on Fibre Channel over Ethernet or native Fibre Channel, NAS or iSCSI all over one unified fabric," said Soni Jiandani, Cisco's vice president of marketing for server access virtualization.

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Jiandani said the consolidated fabric created by an FCoE network for virtual server environments can significantly save money. For example, she said, by using a 10Gbit/sec Ethernet pipe instead of native Fibre Channel switches and adaptors for storage traffic transport, a company could save 40% in networking costs, "while maintaining the investments they currently have in their infrastructure."

The Univesity of Arizona, for instance, installed a unified FCoE network and said it was able to reduce its operating costs by 50%, Jiandani said.

The FCoE protocol works by wrapping Fibre Channel packets in IP headers to send them over traditional Ethernet networks while preserving the Fibre Channel protocol. Typically, because it is sharing bandwidth with traditional server traffic, FCoE systems operate over 10Gbit/sec Ethernet ports.

Ethernet is a less-robust networking protocol than Fibre Channel, which was built to provide reliable and fast transport of block-level data from servers to external storage arrays. Because of Ethernet's inherent problems with dropped data packets, various vendors have submitted separate proposals to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to boost the reliability of Ethernet for Fibre Channel data transport.

"This is not anything new in terms of what our companies resell from each other," said Jim Sangster, senior director of virtualization solutions and alliances at NetApp. "What this is [is] the full end-to-end support that the three of us have been working on for some time."

The key technology in the converged network system is VMware's vSphere virtualization software, which has now been certified to operate with Cisco's Nexus 5000 Series switches and NetApp FAS series unified storage arrays. The networks also use converged network adapters (CNAs) from QLogic, which convert the Fibre Channel packets to IP packets at the host server level.

Earlier this week, Computerworld spoke with QLogic spokesman Steve Zivanic, who said Oracle recently began rebranding QLogic's 8100 series CNA to create its own FCoE converged network. Oracle now offers FCoE switches from Brocade .

QLogic doesn't offer standalone FCoE switches; it only makes FCoE switching ASICs, Zivanic said. But QLogic plans to offer FCoE switches in a variety of form factors soon.

"The key thing is this is the first time we've heard Oracle offer FCoE or converged networking," Zivanic said. "We've heard about their software, hardware, database servers and storage, but now we're hearing about their converged networking component integrated as part of their stack."

FCoE competes directly with Internet SCSI (iSCSI), which is a unique protocol that uses TCP/IP to send block-level packets over Ethernet. Typically, iSCSI is used to consolidate storage for Wintel server farms because it is inexpensive, though not as fast or reliable as native Fibre Channel. By contrast, FCoE is designed to replace the TCP/IP stack needed by iSCSI, and provides a unified network where both typical server and data storage traffic reside on the same wire within the data center.

Cisco's Nexus 5000 multi-protocol storage switch , which has 56 ports, is capable of directing both Fibre Channel and Ethernet traffic.

Stu Miniman, an analyst and researcher at Wikibon, wondered how big a deal NetApp's and Cisco's claim to have the first end-to-end solution for FCoE in a VMware server environment.

"I question how meaningful this configuration is, other than as a test environment," Miniman said in a blog post . "If a configuration is small enough that a single top-of-rack switch can support the solution, why would a NetApp customer go through FCoE?"

Miniman said that for the converged network "to be more interesting," the core Nexus 7000 switch , which has 512 ports, needs to be in the mix.

Cisco said at its Cisco Live user conference last month that it plans to support FCoE with the Nexus 7000 beginning in the next quarter of 2010.

"Bottom line, the ecosystem for Ethernet-based storage is continuing to grow," Miniman said. "The pieces are starting to fall into place for realistic end-to-end FCoE solutions to be deployed by late 2010 or 2011."

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or His e-mail address is .

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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