Why FCoE Standards Matter

Mike Fratto at Network Computing recently wrote an article titled ‘FCoE: Standards Don’t Matter; Vendor Choice Does’ (http://www.networkcomputing.com/storage-networking-management/231002706.)

I definitely differ from Mike’s opinion on the subject.  While I’m no fan of the process of making standards (puts sausage making to shame), or the idea of slowing progress to wait on standards, I do feel they are an absolutely necessary part of FCoE’s future.  It’s all about the timing at which we expect them, the way in which they’re written, and most importantly the way in which they’re adhered to.

Mike bases his opinion on Fibre Channel history and accurately describes the strangle hold the storage vendors have had on the customer.  The vendor’s Hardware Compatibility List (HCL) dictates which vendor you could connect to, and which model and which firmware you can use.  Slip off the list and you lose support.  This means that in the FC world customers typically went with the Storage Area Network (SAN) their VAR or storage vendor recommended, and stuck with it.  While not ideal this worked fine in the small network environment of SAN with the specialized and dedicated purpose of delivering block data from array to server.  These extreme restrictions based on storage vendors and protocol compatibility will not fly as we converge networks.

As worried as storage/SAN admins may be about moving their block data onto Ethernet networks, the traditional network admins may be more worried because of the interoperability concept.  For years network admins have been able to intermix disparate vendors technology to build the networks that they desired, best-of-breed or not.  A load-balancer here, firewall there, data center switch here and presto everything works.  They may have had to sacrifice some features (proprietary value add-that isn’t compatible) but they could safely connect the devices.  More importantly they didn’t have to answer to an HCL dictated by some end-point (storage disk) or another on their network.

For converged networking to work, this freedom must remain.  Adding FCoE to consolidate infrastructure cannot lock network admins into storage HCLs and extreme hardware incompatibility.  This means that the standards must exist, be agreed upon, be specific enough, and be adhered to.  While Mike is correct, you probably won’t want to build multi-vendor networks day one, you will want to have the opportunity to incorporate other services, and products, migrate from one vendor to another, etc.  You’ll want an interoperable standard that allows you to buy 3rd party FCoE appliances for things like de-duplication, compression, encryption or whatever you may need down the road.  We’re not talking about building an Ethernet network dedicated to FCoE, we’re talking about building one network to rule them all (hopefully we never have to take it to Mordor and toss it into molten lava.)  To run one network we need the standards and compatibility that provide us flexibility.

There is no reason for storage vendors to hold the keys to what you can deploy any longer.  Hardware is stable, and if standards are in place the network will properly transport the blocks.  Customers and resellers shouldn’t accept lock in and HCL dictation just because that has been the status quo.  We’re moving the technology forward move your thinking forward.  The issue in the past has been the looseness with which IEEE FCBB-5 is written on some aspects since it’s inception.  This leaves room for interpretation which is where interoperability issues arise between vendors who are both ‘standards based.’  The onus is on us as customers, resellers and an IT community to demand that the standards be well defined, and that the vendors adhere to them in an interoperable fashion. 

Do not accept incompatibility and lack of interoperability in your FCoE switching just because we made the mistake of allowing that to happen with pure FC SANs.  Next time your storage vendor wants a few hundred thousand for your next disk array tell them it isn’t happening unless you can plug it into any standards compliant network without fear of their HCL and loss of support.

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Flexpod Discussion with Vaughn Stewart and Abhinav Joshi

I enjoyed a great conversation with Netapp’s Vaughn Stewart and Cisco’s Abhinav Joshi about FlexPod last week during Cisco Live 2011. Check out the video below.

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