Dell embeds Fibre Channel over Ethernet in server line

FCoE offers a single management layer for Ethernet and storage traffic

Dell will offer Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) network interface cards in all of its servers. The move by the world's largest server provider is sure to bolster adoption of the nascent data transport protocol in enterprise data centers.

Dell is embedding QLogic Corp.'s 8100 Series converged network adapters (CNAs) in a range of Dell PowerEdge servers. The servers include the new PowerEdge R610 and R710 rack servers, T610 and T710 tower servers and the M610 and M710 blade servers.

QLogic's FCoE converged network adapters are already shipping in IBM servers and Cisco switches, as well as in storage arrays from NetApp and EMC.

"Dell's putting their enterprise weight behind FCoE," said Amit Vashi, vice president of marketing for QLogic's Host Solutions Group. "So all the horses have now lined up at the starting gate. Now server customers seeing FCoE on their price sheets." Dell will be including both QLogic's QLE8152 10Gbit/sec FCoE PCIe Dual Port Adapter and its QME8142 10Gbit/sec FCoE Dual Port Adapter.

The delivery by Intel of the Nehalem-EX chip will enable the deployment of production virtual servers with very high I/O rates, which can take advantage of the added throughput 10Gbit/sec Ethernet will provide, according to Vashi.

For example, a network administrator could carve up a 10Gbit/sec Ethernet port so that 6Gbit/sec of bandwidth is dedicated to traditional Ethernet file transfers and 4Gbit/sec is allocated to high-speed storage traffic. Currently, the Fibre Channel protocol is shipping with 4Gbit/sec hardware.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet directly maps the Fibre Channel protocol over Ethernet, bypassing the TCP/IP stack and enabling storage area network traffic to be natively transported over a standard LAN. At the same time, companies can continue using their existing Fibre Channel infrastructure.

Internet SCSI (iSCSI), another protocol that, like FCoE, allows block-level storage traffic to be transmitted over Ethernet, was once considered a likely candidate for enterprise storage traffic. But, since the specification was ratified in 2002, it has mostly been deployed by small-to-medium size companies and enterprises seeking to consolidate large Wintel server farms.

Vashi said he believes the second half of 2010 will mark the beginning of strong uptake in adoption of FCoE because of the adoption of the technology by server, storage and networking vendors alike. FCoE CNA revenue has doubled annually and by 2013, FCoE will be a $400 million market, according to the Del Oro Group.

"Right now is like what Fibre Channel was 10 years ago or Ethernet years before that," Vashi said. "It's a technology inflection point. We've made announcements with EMC, NetApp, IBM and some other vendor announcements will be forth coming."

David Vellante, president and co-founder of The Wikibon Project, said it will likely be five or more years before FCoE is common in data centers. While Dell's adoption of a technology can sometimes move markets, that's not the case with FCoE, he said.

"FCoE and 10GbitE are going to cut network infrastructure costs virtually in half," Vellante said. "The problem is, initially, it's another protocol that has to be supported and the uptake will be slow initially. Once it hits critical mass, it will explode. But what's the business justification for adding another protocol today? I don't need 10Gbit/sec Ethernet yet. Why should I add more complexity and cost?"

For now, Vellante said, adding an FCoE is vastly more expensive than per-port costs for deploying Ethernet and Fibre Channel separately. For example, a dual-port Ethernet NIC costs about $180, a dual-port Fibre Channel host bus adapter runs around $900, and a QLogic CNA costs about $1,500. In order to achieve the bandwidth necessary to justify running both Fibre Channel and Ethernet traffic over a single LAN, users would need to implement 10Gbit/sec Ethernet, which costs about $2,500 for a dual-port connection and about $600 for a dual-port copper wire connection.

However, as the cost for 10Gbit/sec Ethernet drops, using a single network for both Ethernet and Fibre Channel traffic makes sense from both an economic and a network management perspective, he said.

"So the Dell announcement, in and of itself, won't change [things] much. It's the whole picture of convergence that is coming together in terms of server vendors, switch vendors, card guys and storage companies," Vellante said. "I would say that by 2013, 70% of VMware/Hyper-V shops will be virtualizing I/Os through the use of CNA technology at the server and top-of-rack switch level. We virtualized servers, storage and now I/Os are next -- and CNAs are a key technology to that."

Another issue CIOs will have to deal with, however, is who controls a network on which both Ethernet and dedicated storage traffic move? Vellante expects network administrators will ultimately manage the converged network, which will make storage administrators nervous.

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

Tom Trainer, president of market research firm Analytico Inc., said that for some enterprise environments dedicated Fibre Channel storage area networks (SAN) will continue to be the architecture of choice for critical applications for a long time to come. "They'll save FCoE for departmental applications until the technology comes along a little further than it is now," he said. "Even at that, it's going to mark an amazing ramp for FCoE."

Dell is also already reselling FCoE switches from Emulex Corp.

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