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Will fibre channel kill the ethernet star?

01 Mar 09

The first time I laid eyes on the strange silver surface of a CD it sparkled like a futuristic alien invention innocently threatening my collection of little plastic- wheeled cassettes. “It will never replace tapes!” the experts assured me. “You can’t record to CDs like you can cassettes,” the musicians murmured. So the record companies kept churning out their safe plastic packages while coy CDs quietly multiplied on record store shelves.
You know how this ends, right? CDs overtook tapes, and now digital media distribution and the iPod are killing CDs. But will our latest affair with familiar technology blind us to a rising new star or a career comeback technology that would serve us better?
Ethernet, a technology of the 1980s, has been the network of choice when interconnecting the data centre – it’s ubiquitous and understood by many. But applications demanded more than ethernet could deliver, so we diverged into multiple, separate, application-specific networks: an ethernet network for IP traffic, a fibre channel storage area network (SAN) for block mode SCSI traffic, and possibly even an InfiniBand fabric for a high-performance computing cluster.
Fibre channel’s niche success has been with performance and bandwidth-driven ‘serious’ storage projects. It is a safe and dependable choice when faced with these storage demands. Fibre channel fans contest the place for so-called old school ethernet in the world of storage, but as a wise man I know once put it: “nothing will change unless it’s as good or better”.
In lean economic times, resellers need to consider that enhanced networking standards can come together to deliver a better storage infrastructure. Ethernet still holds the most promise combined with the right protocols, algorithms and robust cost-effective storage fabric. Additional capabilities and features are turning this promise into reality.
My winning pick for the battle of technologies is 10Gb ethernet with ‘lossless ethernet’ or Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE). It is chart-topping, robust, high-performance storage but delivered over ethernet. CEE is ethernet’s five-fingers-in-the-fist fight with fibre channel. You can read more about Priority Flow Control (PFC) IEEE 802.1Qbb, Congestion Notification IEEE 802.1Qau, Shortest Path Bridging 802.1Qaq, Link Layer Routing Protocol IETF – TRILL and Enhanced Transmission Selection 802.1Qaz on Google rather than in this column. Needless to say, they deliver robust, dependable bandwidth over 10Gb ethernet’s performance.
As a reseller, you balance customers’ pipe dreams with the stark reality of business today – tightening cost constraints and insatiable application hunger consuming terabytes of data while ensuring their business stays in business.  A common network platform of ethernet with any or some of these five fingers is a helping hand you can give your customers to meet these business demands.
So will fibre channel kill the ethernet star? The stage is set; the lights are up; the growing crowd is pumping while the band is playing ethernet’s latest comeback song – now it’s up to you and your customers, because the fans ultimately decide.

Peter Woolston is NetApp’s Senior Systems Engineer, New Zealand, responsible for being a trusted technical solutions advisor to partners and customers.
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