Intel gives away FCOE to simplify data centers

Its Fibre Channel Over Ethernet stack now works with Windows, Linux, and some network and storage gear

Intel has eased the migration to a single network infrastructure throughout data centers by introducing Open FCOE, a free software stack for Fibre Channel Over Ethernet.

The software stack had been in testing and development for some time, but on Thursday it was formally introduced after being qualified for Microsoft Windows, Red Hat and SUSE Linux, and EMC and NetApp storage platforms. It has also been qualified for use with Cisco Systems and Brocade Communications switches. Open FCOE is being offered as a free upgrade to the Intel 10 Gigabit Ethernet Server Adapter X520 family, the company announced at a press event in San Francisco.

FCOE is an advanced form of Ethernet that is designed to bring the reliability of traditional Fibre Channel to the nearly ubiquitous infrastructure of Ethernet. Fibre Channel remains the connection to many enterprise storage platforms even as Ethernet forms the foundation of both LANs and other storage technologies, such as NAS (network-attached storage) and iSCSI (Internet SCSI). With Ethernet providing both computing and storage connections, IT departments can have more flexibility to provision and modify their data centers, according to backers of the so-called unified fabric.

One of those backers is Cisco, which has been shipping FCOE products since June 2008. Open FCOE will be available to all its 10-Gigabit Ethernet customers, said Soni Jiandani, vice president of marketing for Cisco's Server Access Virtualization Business Unit.

"Customers will no longer have to differentiate between, 'Can I mount storage on my servers that supports NAS, ISCSI, or Fibre Channel?' It brings forth the notion of, 'Wire once, and mount any type of storage on your computing infrastructure,'" Jiandani said. This type of flexibility is key to making the most of computing and storage virtualization, she said.

By providing its Open FCOE stack to operating system vendors, Intel is making it possible to place most of the processing for FCOE connections on servers CPUs instead of specialized processors on the adapters. This keeps the door open to performance improvements in the future as Intel's server processors get faster, said Tom Swinford, vice president and general manager of the data center group in Intel's LAN Access Division. In tests, the CPU load from Open FCOE processing never exceeded 5 percent, Swinford said.

EMC has qualified the Open FCOE software for use with its EMC Symmetrix VMAX and EMC VNX storage platforms. EMC has been working for years with Intel, OS providers and switch vendors to harden the FCOE software and make sure it works with many Intel-based servers and with other network components, said Paul Brown, vice president and general manager of EMC's storage networking business.

Adoption of FCOE is more than doubling every year, according to Crehan Research analyst Seamus Crehan. There were about 300,000 FCOE switch ports and 500,000 adapter ports shipped worldwide in 2010, Crehan said. That's still a tiny share of the approximately 29 million total Ethernet ports of all speeds that were shipped in adapters and LAN-on-motherboard systems. Enterprises have been cautious in implementing FCOE because it is a new technology and is designed for the most mission-critical parts of IT infrastructure, which are often under disclosure regulations, Crehan said. It also requires a jump to expensive 10-Gigabit Ethernet from the Gigabit Ethernet links used for most server connections today.

Having the free, qualified Open FCOE stack available may make it easier to adopt FCOE, because once an enterprise makes the decision to invest in 10-Gigabit Ethernet it can always implement FCOE in the future, Crehan said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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