Will 16 Gb Fibre Channel Derail FCoE?
FCoE was a hot topic at the Interop conference, but the crowd’s reactions were of skepticism rather than enthusiasm. In both of my sessions, many of the questions focused on the “why” of switching to Ethernet for FC storage rather than the “when”.And the advent of 16 Gb Fibre Channel, much in the news with all major vendors rolling out products this quarter, begs the question: Why use a 10 Gb Ethernet standard that remains in flux when 16 Gb FC is shaping up nicely?
It’s important to recognize that neither 16 Gb FC nor 10 Gb FCoE is really ready for prime time at this point. FCoE is functional as an edge-only protocol, and is gaining traction in specialized use cases like blade servers. But end-to-end FCoE requires integrated Fibre Channel Forwarding and Ethernet fabric technology that remains decidedly experimental, and interoperability is a serious question. The calendar will read “2013” before customers can go out and buy Ethernet switches that are fully capable of plug and play, multi-vendor operation.
16 Gb Fibre Channel is decidedly bleeding edge as well, however. A few HBAs and switches have been announced, but most are only shipping in small volume if at all. And although interoperability among vendors and with previous 8 Gb equipment looks good, it’s not a done deal yet.
But the price premium for 16 Gb FC isn’t that high, and I’m hearing lots of talk about design wins from major OEMs. Analysts expect volume shipment of 16Gb equipment in 2012, though it won’t become the majority flavor of FC for another 2 to 3 years after that. A major benefit for both native FC and FCoE is the ease with which they can be added to an existing FC SAN. Both will plug right in, enabling future compatibility right off the bat and faster performance in the future. And a new generation of HBAs are appearing which will work with either standard, allowing customers to buy client-sideequipment now without committing to one or the other in the coming years.
Customers are now beginning their evaluation of next-generation SAN equipment, and will likely allocate major budget spending to 16 Gb FC or 10 Gb FCoE in 2013 and 2014. Which will they choose if both are ready for prime time at that point.Storage is a conservative space since availability and reliability are so crucial to enterprise systems. They will not buy cutting-edge products without a good feeling about supportability.
Vendors are likely to make the difference here. Cisco will likely continue pushing integrated FCoE solutions with EMC and NetApp, but what will HP, Dell, and IBM do? Emulex, QLogic, and Brocade are eager to work with these system heavyweights and all offer solid 16 Gb FC roadmaps. History suggests that customers will side with their systems partners, and that native 16 Gb FC will continue to be attractive in the coming years. They need compelling motivation to switch to Ethernet.