Why not FCoE?

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You may have read my previous articles on FCoE as well as some comments I’ve posted on Brocade’s and Cisco’s blog sites. It won’t surprise you that I’m no fan of FCoE. Not for the technology itself but for the enormous complexity and organisational overhead involved.

So lets take a step back and try to figure out why this has become so much of a buzz in the storage and networking world.

First lets make it clear that FCoE is driven by the networking folks and most notably Cisco. The reason for this is that Cisco has around 90% market share of the data centre networking side but they only have around 10 to 15% of the storage side. (I don’t have the actual numbers at hand but I’ m sure it’s not far off). Brocade with their FC offerings have that part (storage) pretty well covered. Cisco hasn’t been able to eat more out of that pie for quite some time so they had to come up with something else. So FCoE was born. This allowed them (Cisco) to slow but steady get the foot in the storage door by offering a, so called,  “new” way of doing business in the data centre and convince customers to go “converged”.

I already explained that their is no or negligible benefit from an infrastructural and power/cooling perspective so cost-effectiveness from a capex perspective is nil and maybe even negative. I also showed that the organizational overhaul that has to be accomplished is tremendous. Remember you’re trying to glue two different technologies together by adding a new one. The June-2009 FC-BB-5 document (where FCoE is described) is around 1.9 MB and 180 pages give or take a few. FC-BB-6 is 208 pages and 2.4 MB thick. How does this decrease complexity?
Another part that you have to look at is backward compatibility. The Fibre Channel standard went up to 16Gb/s a while ago and most vendors have released product for it already. The FC standard does specify backward compatibility to 2Gb/s. So I’m perfectly safe when linking up an 16G SFP with a 8Gb/s or 4 Gb/s SFP and the speed will be negotiated to the highest possible. This means I don’t have to throw away some older, not yet depreciated, equipment. How does Ethernet play in this game? Well, it doesn’t, 10G Ethernet is incompatible with 1G so they don’t marry up. You have to forklift your equipment out of the data center and get new gear from top to bottom. How’s that for investment protection? The network providers will tell you this migration process comes naturally with equipment refresh but how do you explain that if you have to refresh one or two director class switches were your other equipment can’t connect to it this is a natural process? This means you have buy additional gear that bridges between the old and the new; resulting in you paying even more. This is probably what is meant by “naturally”. “Naturally you have to pay more.”

So it’s pretty obvious that Cisco needs to pursue this path will it ever get more traction in the data center storage networking club. They’ve also proven this with UCS, which looks like to fall off the cliff as well when you believe the publications in the blog-o-sphere. Brocade is not pushing FCoE at all. The only reason they are in the FCoE game is to be risk averse. If for some reason FCoE does take off they can say they have products to support that. Brocade has no intention of giving up an 80 to 85% market share in fibre channel just to be at risk to hand this over the other side being Cisco Networking. Brocade’s strategy is somewhat different than Ciscos’. Both companies have outlined their ideas and plans on numerous occasions so I’ll leave that for you to read on their websites.

“What about the other vendors?”  you’ll say. Well that’s pretty simple. All array vendors couldn’t care less. For them it’s just another transport mechanism like FC and iSCSI and there is no gain nor loss if FCoE makes it or not. They won’t tell you this in your face of course. The other connectivity vendors like Emulex and Qlogic have to be on the train with Cisco as well as Brocade however their main revenue comes out of the server vendors who build products with Emulex or Qlogic chips in them. If the server vendors demand an FCoE chip either party builds one and is happy to sell it to any server vendor. For the connectivity vendors like these it’s just another revenue stream they link into and cannot afford to be outside a certain technology if the competition is picking it up. Given the fact there is some significant R&D required w.r.t. chip development these vendors also have to market their kit to have some ROI. This is normal market dynamics.

“So what alternative do you have for a converged network?” was a question that was asked to me a while ago. My response was “Do you have a Fibre Channel infrastructure? If so, then you already have a converged network.” Fibre Channel was designed from the bottom up to transparently move data back and forth irrespective of the upper protocol used including TCP/IP. Unfortunately SCSI has become the most common but there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t add a networking driver and the IP protocol stack as well. I’ve done this many times and never have had any troubles with it.

The question is now: “Who do you believe?” and “How much risk am I willing to take to adopt FCoE?”. I’m not on the sales side of the fence not am I in marketing. I work in a support role and have many of you on the phone when something goes wrong. My background is not in the academic world. I worked my way up and have been in many roles where I’ve seen technology evolve and I know when to spot bad ones. FCoE is one of them.

Comments are welcome.


About Erwin van Londen

Master Technical Analyst at Hitachi Data Systems
Brocade, Cisco, Fibre Channel , , ,
  • I agree, the only thing you need to with FC is create a zone. Voila plug and play. 🙂

    Of course you can add a gazzilion functions and features but the bare essence is domain-id and zones and you’re good to go.

    FCoE is designed to run a flat L2 Ethernet layer which by definition is not rout-able. If you want to introduct FC routing on FCoE yiou have to do very weird tricks and I wonder how long a troubleshooting case would take in such an environment. 🙂 Veeeeeerrrryyyy lllooooonnnnngggg…..

    Thanks for your support.

  • Nice to see someone giving a contrary view to all the FcoE bleeting, must do the same….

    What I find most annoying are complaints that Fibre Channel is hard to setup. Its simply not true.

    Amusingly the most complex thing I face in FC, is setting up FC routing… and guess what? FcOE cannot do that. #;-)