Is Dell changing its storage fabric tune?

Nearly a year after Dell Inc.’s US$1.4-billion purchase of iSCSI storage area network provider EqualLogic, the rise of Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) may force the tech giant to change its tune on the future of data centre storage solutions.

In a media conference call last week, Dell storage executives said the company is aware of the shift toward convergence of Ethernet and Fibre Channel (FC) technology and that it would have to address the emerging trend.

“There is going to be a lot of noise about what is the right protocol choice for the future and which ones are going to last,” Eric Endebrock, Dell’s enterprise storage product manager, told reporters. “Dell’s a big believer in unifying the fabric and when we look at that we believe the fabric is going to be Ethernet in the long term. We’re not looking to forklift our customers from the environments that they have today.”

Endebrock added that protocols will not be the primary factor in how customers choose their storage systems for the future. He also admitted that FCoE will be a popular solution for legacy FC environments moving towards to a fully unified fabric.

“We believe that FCoE is going to be very important,” Eric Schott, Dell’s senior director of product management, said. “It’s going to be the next generation of interconnect for FC.”

But this kind of language is a stark contrast to some of the dialogue out of Dell’s people earlier this year. In April, Marc Farley, a Dell Inside IT blogger who’s since left the company, stated his case for iSCSI as the superior storage fabric by sharply criticizing FCoE.

“Here’s what I think about FCoE. It’s about as stupid as technology could be,” he wrote. “Vendors making it just want to generate higher margins with a new technology. They want you to think it’s going to be better than the alternatives because they will be able to charge more for it.”

A few days after the post, Farley and other Dell bloggers took a softer approach on FCoE and agreed that it could be valuable in moving FC customers toward Ethernet.

“So, I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on FCoE, because it is a move in the right direction,” Farley wrote. “Being an iSCSI technology bigot, it just seems like an unnecessary, cumbersome step, but to be fair, I tend to see the world through medium-sized business glasses.”

The impact this softened stance will have on Dell’s EqualLogic PS Series iSCSI SAN array line remains to be seen.

Endebrock said that linking EqualLogic to iSCSI is probably not the best way to think about its investment in the storage provider, but didn’t indicate how it would use the brand to help address customers interested in FCoE.

“We are going to be supporting in the future with EqualLogic storage 10 Gigabit Ethernet and data centre bridging Ethernet as an infrastructure for PS Series storage arrays,” Schott said. “We have not made any announcements or statements about any change in the protocol support. Today, PS Series does support iSCSI and it will continue to support iSCSI in the future.

“It’s absolutely available to us to offer other storage protocols in addition to iSCSI in the future, we just have not made any statements to that,” he added.

And according to some analysts, Dell will have plenty of time to adapt to FCoE uptake.

Bob Laliberte, storage analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, said that FCoE is the best way to gracefully transition from FC to Ethernet and that it will prove popular with many IT shops. However, for new environments, the drop in 10 Gigabit Ethernet pricing to about $500 per port has made iSCSI a compelling option.

“Also, keep in mind that FCoE products just got ‘certified’ by the major storage vendors like EMC and NetApp, so this will be a slow roll into production environments,” he said. While there will be a lot of investment in FCoE and iSCSI over 10 Gigabit Ethernet next year, widespread use in production won’t occur until 2010-2011.

“Customers need proven solutions today so FC and iSCSI are good choices,” he added. “I also expect that iSCSI will begin to develop the same advanced services.”

Laliberte said Dell is very well-positioned in the midmarket. Rather than evangelizing and building the FCoE market, he said, Dell would use its strength to simplify FCoE once it emerges.

“We expect that the FCoE market will be not be any different,” Laliberte said. “Once the products have proven value and the standards have been ratified in 2009, we expect that Dell will package those technologies in the same way they have FC and iSCSI.”

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