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Where Is Intel's FCoE Solution?

FCoE may not be the slam-dunk portrayed by some analysts and vendors, but I'm confident an "everything over Ethernet" approach is the right one for the next generation of enterprise data centers. It's hard to argue with commodity pricing, solid 10Gbit performance, backward-compatible connectivity and network-enabled flexibility. Fibre Channel will eventually succumb to the Ethernet monster, and the data center will be better for it.

The vanguard of this shift is found in the convergence of server virtualization and blades. Systems like Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) are a preview of tomorrow's infrastructure, and HP, Dell, IBM and the rest aren't far behind. But it is the x86 hypervisor that makes everything possible right now. Although Microsoft's Hyper-V shows promise, VMware's ESX is the major league of virtualization--and thus convergence.

While preparing for a series of seminars I will present in 2011 focusing on storage architecture to support server virtualization, I began researching FCoE-capable converged network adapters. The VMware ESX HCL is populated with the usual suspects, Emulex and Qlogic, as well as the new challenger, Brocade. But Ethernet stalwarts like Broadcom and Intel are nowhere to be found.

Intel's strategy for converged networking differs dramatically from Emulex's and QLogic's. Rather than offload network processing from the CPU with specialized chips, Intel intends to drive protocol processing into its processors. Moore's Law is a cruel master. Ever-increasing transistor density has led Intel's latest chips to absorb the Northbridge (with its PCI controller) and the GPU. The proliferation of processing units means those chips can handle much more in parallel, and Intel believes network processing is an ideal workload here.

But the hypervisor can use those cores, too. Unlike a stand-alone operating system, VMware ESX voraciously devours CPU cores, RAM and IOPS. The offload pitch will be especially attractive, as software from VKernel and others will quickly demonstrate greater consolidation in servers using QLogic and Emulex offload engines.

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