In the storage networking space, convergence has been the hot topic for the last four years. I will be attending SNW in 2 weeks and a quick look at the agenda shows that “converged” or “unified” trail only “cloud” in buzzword bingo. I wrote recently about how FCoE sales are doing well in embedded and rack-based solutions. While the move to Ethernet based storage networks is growing, there are many things that customers and vendors can do to accelerate this transition. The storage industry is notoriously slow to change and this is about more than just a protocol transition (which always take much longer than anticipated). The imperative for companies to adopt converged infrastructure is that CIOs are under tremendous pressures to lower costs, IT must compete with cloud pricing models and staffs are increasingly moving from specialists to generalists. While some customers will wait until FCoE ships as part of a standard configuration (expect more LOM solutions when Intel’s Sandy Bridge servers roll out), here are my recommendations for the industry on accelerating convergence.
FCoE can’t be FC 2.0
Fibre Channel (FC) has often been derided as too complicated, with stringent guidelines as to what can be supported and in what configurations. FCoE and converged networking needs to do better. The FC ecosystem took many years to move from a single switch, to dual switch, quad switch and finally multi-hop environments. FCoE needs to get through this much faster. While some say that interoperability between vendors is needed, I do not believe that this is needed at the core, rather that there needs to be a lot more flexibility (multi-hop) between a mix of embedded/blade switches, top of rack switches, core switches and even blades in Fibre Channel switches. Cisco’s J Metz does a nice job of explaining the truth of a multi-hop environment, but customers want a converged environment to simplify the solution, not bog them down with needing to understand more limitations. While I greatly respect that storage traffic must be reliable, multi-hop needs to move from limited configurations to something more akin to the rest of Ethernet (or at least equivalent to FC today).
Mind the Management Gap
Management of the solution is also big gap in the converged networking story. There are an increasing number of products that can support FCoE, but tools that go beyond allowing the LAN and SAN administrators to continue to do things the way that they were done before are lacking. There are significant differences between the best practices of the LAN and SAN – which a few companies have been documenting, check out Erik Smith’s post about EMC TechBooks – the management tools need to help orchestrate the combined solution while increasing the efficiencies of the network and storage teams. As organizations look for ITaaS solutions, management tools must provide a single pane of glass view of the network, storage and compute that integrates seamlessly with other management tools (notably VMware vCenter).
No Solution Without Customer Changes
Beyond all of the technical challenges and vendor moves, convergence will fail if customers do not address internal inertia and organizational challenges. Virtualization has helped many customers to bring together the various disciplines for planning, converged networking also requires that groups communicate and potentially restructure into a single group. IT practitioners have fear that convergence will lead to a reduction in staff and vendors try to allay these concerns, but ultimately the solutions will lead to different skills and potentially a shift in people. The transition to 10GbE and changes in the structure of the network (flattening for virtualization) are opportunities to address the divergence of SAN and LAN. The transition will take time and there are opportunities for staff to gain new skills and certifications, but customers that want to take advantage of cost benefits should start the planning for how convergence will affect its organization.
Multiple Paths to Ethernet
FCoE is a solution, not the solution to get to a single network. NAS and iSCSI both continue to grow and rarely compete with FC/FCoE. Customers are buying 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches and next-generation blade servers that support all of the Ethernet options including FCoE, and Ethernet will continue to assimilate a greater portion of the storage networking environment (as seen in the chart below, numbers from IDC and EMC). I hope to hear the progress of vendors and customers at SNW. Remember to check the hype cycle, if we’re past the peak of hype, watch out for the trough of disillusionment because the industry is getting closer to providing productivity with converged networking.