If there is one thing we’ve learned over the years in networking, it is not to underestimate the evolution of network capacity requirements over time or the complexity of managing the core networks that power our data centers. Thankfully we have a networking technology in Ethernet that has kept in step with our networking performance requirements, from the game changing 10Mb Ethernet 10BaseT, effectively replacing coax and token-ring networks in the 90s, to talk today of applications that will fill the emerging standard of 100Gb Ethernet. But is it a fit for every networking purpose, such as a replacement for Fibre Channel (FC) for instance for storage area networking (SAN)? The high costs for FC-based switches, host bus adapters, and storage solutions have caused reluctance around moving to a SAN for many mid-sized organizations. However, the ongoing management of a non-Ethernet network infrastructure is an obstacle that can be avoided.
FC is often the de facto standard for SANs, but the commoditization of 10Gb Ethernet (10GbE) in the data center core and the need to squeeze out every dollar of investment and simplify the network may be changing this dynamic. It can be argued that it is becoming increasing difficult to rationalize two networking technologies when Ethernet is already in the core and iSCSI has broad acceptance.
However, FC is clearly not going away anytime soon. Brocade is a market leader in FC switching technology and has reported quarter over quarter growth for FC switching revenue over five consecutive quarters, and according to Dell’Oro Group, FC adapter revenue will continue to grow through the next 12 to 18 months. It can also be argued that FC is superior technology to 10GbE, with its network congestion mitigation methods and storage-specific mechanisms, such as automated addressing, device discovery, fabric building, and state change notifications to facilitate transactions between initiators (servers) and targets (storage systems). Yet networking history is full examples involving Ethernet where the better technology, such as token ring and ATM LAN Emulation, did not overcome Ethernet’s elegant simplicity.
One key factor in the emergence of 10GbE in the data center and inroads into the SAN fabric is its simplicity, because it is after all the familiar Ethernet. It reduces the need to manage separate networking equipment, cabling and vendors—and separate network management applications and network managers (or storage network managers as the case may be). The benefit of network convergence is clear, but the real benefit and separation from FC is cost.
10GbE cost is hard to beat. With an estimated port price of around $7,500 for 8Gb FC compared with something closer to $500 for a port of 10GbE, Ethernet fits in very well in a convergence strategy linking storage, servers and the aggregation layer in the data center. With 10Gb in core and 1Gb on the edge, you have the infrastructure in place to take advantage of 40Gb and 100Gb Ethernet when it is needed—and as we know, it will be needed in just a matter of time.
It also does not have to be an all or nothing affair. FC over Ethernet (FCoE) adoption is rising and the emerging 16Gb FC adapter products can be FC or Ethernet, allowing for a single board or port to support FC or be switched to FCoE, iSCSI, or NAS.
The FC vs. 10GbE debate will often take on political and philosophical dimensions in the enterprise, but from the standpoint of ease of convergence, cost and simplicity, 10GbE is a clear winner when given the opportunity to start fresh in upgrading your data center core and/or replacing or buying a new SAN.
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