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Intel throws hat in converged networking ring with free FCoE

Wearing its networking hat, Intel announced it will add free FCoE support to its 10 Gigabit Ethernet server adapaters and controllers.

In a move designed to expand the reach of FCoE -- and its 10 Gigabit Ethernet adapter business -- Intel will include support for Open-FCoE on select server adapters and controllers. But it’s unclear from Thursday’s announcement whether Intel has the product -- or the partners -- to make it a go.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE, is an approach to converged networking that allows data center managers to collapse Ethernet data and Fibre Channel storage traffic on to a single 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) connection, reducing cabling, ports, and enabling denser, more power-efficient systems, proponents say. Open-FCoE is an open source implementation of the protocol developed by Intel accepted in to the Linux kernel in November.

To date, running FCoE has required the use of specialized adapters called converged network adapters (CNAs) from vendors like Emulex and QLogic. With this news, any server equipped with the Intel X520 10 GbE adapter will be able to connect to storage via FCoE directly.

“We think FCoE should be free, just like NFS and iSCSI already are,” said Tom Swinford, general manager and vice president of Intel’s LAN Access division, referring to better-established Ethernet-based storage protocols. With Intel’s announcement Thursday, “there are no firmware upgrade fees to use FCoE on our controllers.”

Performance, support polemics
Critics might counter that you get what you pay for. Intel’s Open-FCoE implementation is done in software, i.e., does not introduce any specialized hardware and relies on the host’s processing power. By extension, using the native Intel FCoE could introduce a performance hit under certain circumstances.

But even without dedicated hardware, FCoE performance on the X520 is pretty good already, Swinford claimed. Intel commissioned independent testing firm Demartek to check out the X520 and Open-FCoE on hosts running Exchange and SQL Server, and found that performance was almost as good as that delivered by a true CNA.

Further, as “as we continue to make stronger and more powerful processors, our performance is only going to get better,” Swinford added.

But Emulex and Qlogic CNAs have other advantages than just dedicated hardware, namely stable drivers and certification for relevant operating system and multipathing software, said Gartner vice president Joe Skorupa.

Data center managers -- and storage professionals in particular -- are a notoriously conservative bunch. “They don’t care about saving a couple of hundred bucks if it means that they can’t get their production SAN to boot,” Skorupa said.

Safety in numbers
Trying to head off criticism, Intel announced the FCoE support Thursday flanked by some of the industry’s biggest and most vocal FCoE supporters. EMC announced that it qualified its Symmetrix VMAX and VNX platforms with Open-FCoE, while Cisco certified it with its Nexus 2000 and 5000 unified fabric switches. Intel said other vendors supporting Open-FCOE include NetApp, Brocade, Dell, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle and Red Hat.

Conspicuously absent from that list are the two leading blade vendors -- Hewlett-Packard and IBM. Those vendors have already settled on Emulex as their supplier for the specialized CNAs to go in to their respective BladeSystem and BladeCenter offerings. Blades, with their diminutive footprint, are an important consumer of converged networking technologies.

Still, it’s a start for Intel. Even though the company is best known for its processors, it sells a lot of networking equipment, with approximately 25% market share for Ethernet adapters. Granted, Intel’s strength is largely for commodity 1 GbE cards, but the share of sales going to 10 GbE has ramped significantly, to about 20%, said Intel’s Swinford, and it could use that strength to capture more market share, and throw a wrench in market dynamics.

Plus, Intel can afford to incentivize partners to test their wares against its adapters. Citing data that suggests it costs a vendor one million dollars to perform a compatibility test, “previously the storage vendors didn’t have any incentive to look outside Emulex and Qlogic,” said Gartner’s Skorupa. “If they can get EMC, IBM, NetApp and HDS onboard, then yeah, it could change the price point and disrupt the [Emulex/Qlogic] duopoly.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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