Above the Network Layer

Forget Ethernet vs. Fibre Channel... customers are looking for peaceful coexistence

January 24, 2007

3 Min Read
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So a host of copper-compatible 10-Gbit/s HBAs is hitting the streets. (See 10GBase-T Adapters Debut.) QLogic will OEM Alacritech technology to create HBAs with 10-Gbit/s TOEs for multivendor servers. (See QLogic Licenses Alacritech.) And IBM says new blades will open a world of 10-Gbit/s to the masses. (See Will Blades Cut Path for 10-Gig?)

Does this mean 10-Gbit/s is finally here? More importantly, is it ready to kick Fibre Channel's posterior?

The answer to the first question is definitely "Yes!" To the second, a resounding "No!" While there's evidence pointing to more widespread adoption of high-speed Ethernet-based interconnections in data centers, there is little or no evidence that it's being used as a replacement for FC.

Instead, customers don't seem to care whether Ethernet or Fibre Channel rules, so long as they get the virtualization, clustering, and other upper-layer functions they require.

Ask Jon Geibel and Jack Brooks of Walt Disney Feature Animation, the firm that produced the digital film Meet the Robinsons for its upcoming March debut. (See Disney.) In creating a tiered storage environment to cope with their latest movie, the Disney folk were intent on improving I/O performance and increasing CPU usage. They did so over a 2-Gbit/s Fibre Channel network, which they're not into changing. Others say they'll move to Ethernet from FC only if and when key equipment suppliers dictate it. "I leave... future prognostication to other experts. Our intent is to respond to customer needs," says Tyler Roye, CEO of Invision.com, a managed service and hosting provider. He's focused on products that enable him to create and improve his services, which are based on FC and Ethernet. He's publicly testifying about his use of SRM tools from Computer Associates, which can manage storage across multivendor gear, regardless of the underlying network. (See CA Widens SRM Support.)

"We've been begging manufacturers to support 10-Gbit/s Ethernet," says Matthew Schneider, director of technology at PostWorks New York, a post-production facility for film and TV. But he's talking LAN connections, not storage at least not yet. For storage, Schneider's team uses 4-Gbit/s Fibre Channel to link a Facilis Terrablock server equipped with ATTO Celerity adapters to the firm's Avid Nitris production processing system.

Peaceful coexistence will reign until the suppliers shift the balance, he believes: "Fibre Channel and Ethernet will coexist, but it's impossible to tell whether they'll coexist en route to replacing one another." In the end, whoever produces the best and fastest solution for his applications will carry the day.

Indeed, from the end user's perspective, the underlying network appears to be negotiable. Their focus isn't on networking, but on upper-layer functions like clustering, virtualization, parallel file systems, and so forth. And for these kinds of applications, it's likely we'll see a mix of underlying transports, pulled along in part by the upper-layer suppliers' partnerships.

In Disney's case, for instance, the choice of Ibrix pulled some EMC hardware into an otherwise NetApp-based environment. Again, though, the argument wasn't over the transport, but the effectiveness of data handling at the server level.The upshot? Any "FC vs. Ethernet" argument is increasingly irrelevant. In real life, nobody buys a network for its own sake. In the future, it will be interesting to see how emerging clustering and virtualization plans drive the use of a variety of transport technologies.

— Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

  • Alacritech Inc.

  • ATTO Technology Inc.

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • QLogic Corp.

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