New Fibre Channel over Ethernet standard proposed

Standard would leverage less expensive networking tools

Leading networking vendors yesterday presented a new standards proposal for using the Fibre Channel protocol over Ethernet networks in order to attach the majority of lower-level data center servers within enterprises to storage-area networks (SAN).

The Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) proposed standard has been submitted to the T11 Committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The FCoE standard would directly map the Fibre Channel protocol over Ethernet, bypassing the TCP/IP stack, and enable SAN traffic to be natively transported over standard LAN networks while allowing companies to continue using their existing Fibre Channel infrastructure.

Claudio DeSanti, vice chairman of the T11 Committee and technical leader of Cisco Systems Inc.'s Data Center business unit, said the new protocol is a similar, yet simpler, technology compared with the existing Fibre Channel over IP protocol (FCIP), which wraps Fibre Channel packets in IP headers. (see "What's after Fibre Channel ").

DeSanti said what users will likely see in a product some day is a multi-protocol switch with both Fibre Channel and Ethernet ports. The switch will perform a mapping function that will take the Fibre Channel frames and encapsulate them inside Ethernet packets to be sent out over a LAN.

"You may see this as a competitive technology to iSCSI, but it's not a replacement. This is just an additional technology," DeSanti said.

Mike Smith, vice president of worldwide marketing for Emulex Corp., one of the vendors supporting the standard, said FCoE is being targeted at the need to consolidate storage for blade servers and virtualized servers on a SAN.

"The beauty here is ... end users can leverage the investment they've made in Fibre Channel in the data center -- driver stacks, management tools, provisioning tools, and so forth -- across an Ethernet network," Smith said.

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, the 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.

The vendors supporting the FCoE proposal said they also recognize that there are inherent security issues associated with mixing transactional data and other high-priority information with other LAN traffic. Data packets traveling over Ethernet are assigned tags that are used by switches in a network to prioritize the flow of data.

"Some of the enhancements being defined [by the proposal] specify up to eight traffic classes that would be identified by those tags, and that's how the infrastructure would know how to keep the flow of traffic isolated," said Taufik Ma, vice president of marketing for intelligent network products at Emulex.

Along with Emulex, the FCoE standards proposal is being supported by Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Cisco, Nuova Systems Inc., EMC Corp., IBM, Intel Corp., QLogic Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Standards proposals, if successful, normally take about 18 to 24 months to navigate the standards committee maze before being approved, meaning products supporting a completed standard would likely not reach the market until sometime in 2009, Smith said.

However, vendors often base products on incomplete standards, so users may see switches touting Fibre Channel over Ethernet before the protocol navigates the standards process.

"Clearly we would consider that, but at this point in time we're not talking about product plans," said Anthony Faustini, product line manager in Cisco's data center unit.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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