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The FCoE Market: Which Model Wins?

As Fibre Channel over Ethernet moves from lab attraction and proofs of concept into real market acceptance, the big question is will the emerging FCoE market be more FC or more E?  While corporate data centers worldwide have both Fibre Channel and Ethernet networks, the markets for these two networking technologies are very different, and the established players in each are trying to make the nascent FCoE market in their own images.

Since storage administrators identify most closely with their disk arrays the Fibre Channel market is dominated by EMC, HP, IBM, HDS and their HCLs (hardware compatibility lists).   Most customers buy their Fibre Channel switches, and frequently their HBAs, as OEM products from their array vendors. HP customers, for example, can buy HP brand C-series or B-series switches which are made by Cisco and Brocade respectively.

This, combined with a history of proprietary features and interoperability problems has left us with just four companies in the Fibre Channel networking business. Brocade dominates the FC switch market with Cisco and Qlogic bringing up the rear. For HBAs, Qlogic and Emulex sell the bulk of the cards while Brocade and a few remaining hangers on like Atto sell a few. Most customers stick with whatever vendor's switches and HBAs they start with, giving the HP or EMC sales guy enormous influence over SAN network decisions. Fibre Channel partisans will tell us this has lead to reliable, high performance sans but it's also kept prices up and failed to properly reward innovations like Qlogic's 10 and 20Gpbs stacking/ISL ports.

If storage guys think with their arrays, network folks are all about the switches and routers, so they deal with their vendors, primarily Cisco, directly. The other big difference is that Ethernet interoperability is assumed so HCLs, if they exist, are just suggestions. Most network guys have run heterogeneous networks for years at a time, as it can take years to replace a 5-20,000 port network. The last Ethernet interoperability issue I saw was in '92 or so when an accounting package would only run right if the workstations used genuine Novell NE1000 NICs but not a clone.

If FCoE is going to pay off on its promise of Fibre Channel reliability and management at Ethernet price, we have to demand Ethernet type interoperability. This is about to play out in the NIC /CNA market, but that's a story for another blog entry.