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Qlogic Fabric Freedom Equals More Convergence

The path to converged networking has to date been driven mostly from the networking side of the street. While we can argue whether Fibre Channel over Ethernet is more Fibre Channel or Ethernet, there's no argument that Cisco has been its biggest cheerleader. Qlogic's new Fabric Freedom product line provides a more storage-centric and incremental path to converged networking by supplying ports that can switch between 16-Gbps Fibre Channel and 10-Gbps Ethernet, with or without Fibre Channel over Ethernet, as your data center evolves.

While I'm a firm believer that Ethernet always wins, the path to converged networking has required a significant upfront investment in Fibre Channel over Ethernet-capable switching. Your shiny new nth-generation CNA isn't going to do you any good if you don't have a 10-Gbs switch to plug it into. If you need to buy a dozen, or 1,000, new servers before you settle on a new data center switching architecture, you’ll have to equip them with quad 1-Gbps Ethernet cards and Fibre Channel HBAs.

Qlogic's dual-port FlexSuite adapter can be configured as either a 16-Gbps Fibre Channel HBA or a 10-Gbps Ethernet CNA, complete with up to eight virtual NICs per port with bandwidth management, single-root I/O virtualization (SR-IOV), and protocol offloads including TCP, iSCSI and FCoE.

When you install the server into your Fibre Channel network and configure it to be an HBA, it will look and smell like the Qlogic HBAs the majority of Fibre Channel-attached servers in the world already run. You can plug it into your 4-, 8- or 16-Gbps Fibre Channel network and be up and running tout de suite.

When you get around to installing 10-Gbps switches, you can swap out the Fibre Channel optics for 10-Gbps Ethernet optics or DAC (direct-attach copper) cables, flash in the Ethernet personality firmware and plug it in to run converged networking. I can even see some companies installing a pair of FlexSuite cards for non-converged data and storage traffic using the same hardware.

Qlogic promises SFP+ and 10-Gbase-T versions, though I can't see Fibre Channel over twisted pair getting any traction. While you can switch the card's personality from Fibre Channel to Ethernet or vice versa, both ports have to run the same layer 2 protocol at a time.

Qlogic also announced a companion switch that can switch ports back and forth between 10-Gbps Ethernet with DCB and 16-Gbps Fibre Channel. The UA5900 (The UA stands for Universal Access) has 52 SFP+ flex ports plus four QSFP ports that can run 40-Gbps Ethernet or 64-Gbps Fibre Channel. Like many Fibre Channel switches, you buy it with some ports enabled and buy licenses to turn up additional ports in four- or 12-port increments.

Most vendors enable Ethernet on their base switches and charge a significant sum for the storage protocol support to run Fibre Channel over Ethernet. Qlogic thinks of this as a Fibre Channel switch that does Ethernet more than as an Ethernet switch and a Fibre Channel switch in the same box that speak Fibre Channel over Ethernet to each other, as most first-generation FCoE switches did. They do charge for a converged networking license to let Fibre Channel over Ethernet servers communicate with Fibre Channel-attached storage, but the base switch will support native FCoE storage access without a special license.

It looks to me like Qlogic’s done a good job defending its position as the HBA leader, and is delivering a new approach to Fibre Channel over Ethernet that can be implemented more incrementally than Cisco's or Brocade's model. On the other hand, the UA5900 doesn’t have any TRILL-like Ethernet fabric support or virtual server security management, and I’m betting the future of data center networking is in that direction.