Fibre Channel over Ethernet standard “coming along beautifully”

Products allowing storage area networks to use a proposed Fibre Channel over Ethernet standard could be in trials by the end of the year, says the chairman of a group trying to finalize the protocol.

Robert Snively, a principal engineer in the standards and technology group at SAN switch maker Brocade Communications who also heads the T11 committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), made the prediction in an interview on the progress of the standard. Manufacturers proposed the idea to the ANSI nine months ago.

Work on the committee, responsible for hammering out the standard, “is coming along beautifully,” Snively said. He expects a mail-in ballot to be sent out to committee members – representatives of manufactures such as Brocade, Cisco Systems, Intel and others – in June.

Last month Intel released software to encourage FCoE products for the Linux operating system.

After the vote there will be an industry comment period of two to four months, after which will be broader public comment before the standard is published for adoption.

There have already been proof of concept demonstrations by Cisco and others, Snively, said, and he expects to see pre-standard implementations by the end of 2008. Approved products would hit the market in 2009.

However, that assumes the Ethernet standard is also altered. There is some consensus among switch manufacturers that protocol has to change to improve Ethernet’s reliability, said Snively.

Suggested changes, which have to be approved by the IEEE 802.11 standards body that oversees Ethernet standards, would ensure data frames aren’t blocked or dropped, which Ethernet switches do from time to time. The status of those proposed changes couldn’t be determined at press time.

Similar to Fibre Channel over IP, FCoE would enable SAN data to use local area networks, extending the life of storage arrays built around Fibre Channel. However, Snively noted that Fibre Channel over IP is almost exclusively used to link storage over long distances. FCoE is intended for the space between a switch and a host system, he said, with the advantage that it isn’t burdened by the TCP/IP overhead that Fibre Channel over IP has.

Manufacturers see that “there’s all these Fibre Channel SANs out there,” Snively said, and think “wouldn’t it be nice if [host devices] could be reached with a common interface” – Ethernet.

iSCSI over Ethernet has some merit, he added, but it’s not convenient for high-performance environments.

“If your [organization is ] in a Fibre Channel mode it’s one way that you can leverage some cost savings but still be a Fibre Channel shop.” said James Sloan, analyst at Info-Tech Research of London, Ont.

FCoE could be used by switch and storage manufacturers to dissuade customers from shifting to competing storage area networking technologies such as iSCSI over Ethernet, he said.

However, neither he nor Snively could estimate the size of the potential market.

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