Moving to FCoE

The appeal of an all-FCoE data center is obvious. Reduce complexity in the data center, reduce the physical assets, reduce the operating expenses (huge power savings potential), very little learning curve, familiar tools. Pretty soon it starts sounding like a no-brainer. But that isn’t the end of the story; it’s just the beginning.

So you happen to have a Data Center that is getting a little long in the tooth. It’s going to be time for a refresh. You’ve heard about the buzz surrounding FCoE but you’re not sure whether it would be right for your data center, or perhaps not yet. Now, before you can get the right answers, you need to know the right questions to ask.

Evolve or Revolve?

Despite the hype, where does it fit into your data center? FCoE is designed to be an evolutionary, not revolutionary approach. That means that there shouldn’t be a rip-and-replace of the existing fibre channel equipment.

That being said, FCoE holds the promise of immediate cost savings in terms of power and it would be appropriate to to test builds and early field trials. But data centers in expensive power locations, such as Southeast Asia or Southern California, may find it appropriate to begin a ground-up build using FCoE technology.

Scope and Scale

How big is your Data Center? What topologies are being used? How difficult (or easy) will it be to route storage traffic across zones and protocols?

FCoE at the current revision is limited to single-hop topologies, as congestion notification hasn’t been worked out yet. Cisco and Brocade recently compromised on the ethertype format that will help pave the way to larger topologies, but migration will need to be a multi-phased approach. In some cases, the power savings alone might be worthwhile (a sample calculation of simply changing out the cables for 1000-server data center resulted in an estimated $75k savings in power costs alone), so perhaps a new buildout might be an appropriate solution, with the intention of later expansion.

Personnel Focus

Who can do your planning? Most data center personnel that I have met (branching across Financial, Banking, co-locations, etc.) are short-staffed, resource-constrained, and legacy focused. Do they have the time to devote to making long-term strategies and understand the nuances of FCoE as it relates to your migration/transition plans? Who are the experts they will ask? How can you be sure you’re getting a non-biased, vendor-agnostic view of the best possible solution for your data center – not just now but over the next few years?

(Full disclosure: I’ve been seriously considering returning to consulting, work alongside data center personnel to create FCoE evolution strategies.)

Plan of Action

Some data centers have a sole source vendor requirement, and as a result will likely be talking with those vendors for the answers to their questions. Cisco, HP, IBM, Dell, EMC, NetApp – all of these companies have extremely talented teams to help you plan out your next-generation Data Center (and would fall all over themselves to plan it for you).

Some corporations aren’t sure which technology to choose. Should you go with Cisco’s UCS or HP’s VirtualConnect or FCoE offering? Should you use NetApp or EMC’s FCoE storage offerings? Who’s CNA should you use? QLogic was first to market, but does that really mean anything? Brocade was first to be certified with HP, but will it work with other mixed environments? What about Emulex’s new UCNA announcement? How can you be sure?

What about longevity? What will your strategy look over the next 2-, 3- or 5- year plans? How does this work with refresh cycles?

At the broadest level, you need someone who:

  • Understands the FCoE technology
  • Understands the standards and revision roadmap
  • Can work with your data team without conflicts of interest
  • Can provide you with an honest “should you/shouldn’t you” evaluation
  • Can provide you with the best approach for your company, even with vendor-specific requirements
  • Provide a workable phased strategy for implementation
  • Can help with long-term developments such as 40GbE and 100GbE

Welcome to the iceberg; you’ve reached the tip. FCoE is a fantastic, promising technology but it may or may not be what you need right now. Sure, it can save a oodles of money, and can provide a future-proof (sort of) data center, but sometimes finding the answers that you need require broadening the questions that you ask.

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