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Storage networking getting Ethernet makeover

In a bid to broaden Fibre Channel adoption, allies are developing a version that runs on conventional Ethernet networks.

IBM, Cisco Systems and other powerful computing companies have allied to create a version of the Fibre Channel storage networking technology that runs over more ordinary Ethernet networks.

Fibre Channel is common among high-end customers as a way to connect servers to storage devices, a technology called a storage area network (SAN). But doing so requires separate Fibre Channel cables, network switches and server adapter cards--and administrators who understand it.

By employing Fibre Channel to the ubiquitous Ethernet technology, the allies hope to expand its use, said Mike Smith, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Emulex, one of the companies behind the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCOE) effort.

"There are a lot of users who like Fibre Channel but want to find a different way to expand use of SAN-attached storage," Smith said. One such attempt has come through technology called iSCSI, but Fibre Channel over Ethernet will offer faster performance and reliability, Smith argued.

Several influential companies established a working group in the Fibre Channel standards group to create the technology. "Cisco and IBM are two preeminent drivers for this," Smith said. Other backers are Emulex, Intel, Sun Microsystems, Brocade, QLogic, EMC and a Cisco-funded start-up, Nuova Systems.

A first draft of the standard could appear in six months, with a final version in 18, Smith said. "We expect products in the 2009 timeframe," he added. It's timed around the mainstream server arrival of 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet, which FCOE will use.

One significant difference between FCOE and iSCSI is that the latter uses higher-level network technology called TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), the same standard the Internet itself uses to route traffic and to ensure requested packets of data arrive. FCOE, though, has its own technology for that purpose.

FCOE will let customers reuse their existing SAN management software, Smith said, but servers will need new adapter cards. It's not yet clear whether FCOE support might become a standard component of servers or 10Gbps Ethernet network adapters.

Conventional Fibre Channel won't be replaced by the Ethernet version, he added. "I think we'll see both in the market for some time," Smith said.

The current 4Gbps Fibre Channel will be replaced by 8Gbps technology, and a 16Gbps is under development at standards groups, he said. The latter probably won't arrive until 2012 or so, he said.