Protocol wars: Can Fibre Channel survive Ethernet's assault?

Although Fibre Channel is seeing single-digit growth rates, Ethernet for storage is exploding

Fibre Channel, the high-speed data transport protocol for storage area networks (SAN), is under increasing pressure as data centers move toward Ethernet for all data network traffic and SAS for hardware interconnects.

By no means is Fibre Channel down and out. In fact, recent figures indicate it's still showing low single-digit, year-over-year growth. The protocol is currently used in $50 billion worth of equipment around the world, according to research firm Gartner.

Because corporate data centers are slow to change out technology, the Fibre Channel networking market will likely continue to show sluggish growth for the next five to 10 years. After that, Ethernet looks to be the protocol of the future.

"The counter winds against Ethernet is that there's a lot of politics and a lot of religion around Fibre Channel," said Forrester analyst Andrew Reichmann. "[But] Ethernet can do most everything Fibre Channel can do. Ethernet is cheaper, more ubiquitous."

And it allows IT managers to find the best fit for specific application workloads, he said. "As those decisions move more toward a workload-centric approach, the one that makes the most sense is Ethernet. For example, it makes more sense to put your [virtual machine] infrastructure on iSCSI or NFS [network file system] because there's very little difference in the performance you get compared to Fibre Channel."

Slowing the move to Ethernet -- for now -- are the usual IT turf battles. Storage networks and hardware are purchased by the storage team, which controls that portion of the overall IT budget. Moving to an all-Ethernet infrastructure means giving that budget away to the networking group, according to Reichmann.

On top of that, some storage administrators simply don't believe Ethernet is robust enough for data storage traffic. They've always used Fibre Channel and see it as the fastest, most reliable way to move data between servers and back-end storage.

"All those factors make it hard to move away from Fibre Channel," Reichmann said.

Market research firm IDC predicts Fibre Channel will remain at the core of many data centers (supporting mission-critical mainframe and Unix-based applications), while most future IT asset deployments will leverage 10GbE (and later 40GbE) for the underlying storage interconnect. This transition will lead eventually to market revenue losses for Fibre Channel host bus adapters (HBA) and switch products.

As the Fibre Channel market shrinks, IDC predicts "rapid and sustained revenue growth" for 10GbE storage interconnect hardware such as converged network adapters (CNA), 10GbE network interface cards (NIC) and switches. (A CNA is simply a network interface card that allows access to both SANs and more common LAN networks by offering multiple protocols such as Fibre Channel, iSCSI, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and straight Ethernet.)

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