Peak Fibre Channel

There have been several articles talking about the death of Fibre Channel. This isn’t one of them. However, it is an article about “peak Fibre Channel”. I think, as a technology, Fibre Channel is in the process of (if it hasn’t already) peaking.

There’s a lot of technology in IT that doesn’t simply die. Instead, it grows, peaks, then slowly (or perhaps very slowly) fades. Consider Unix/RISC. The Unix/RISC market right now is a caretaker platform. Very few new projects are built on Unix/RISC. Typically a new Unix server is purchased to replace an existing but no-longer-supported Unix server to run an older application that we can’t or won’t move onto a more modern platform. The Unix market has been shrinking for over a decade (2004 was probably the year of Peak Unix), yet the market is still a multi-billion dollar revenue market. It’s just a (slowly) shrinking one.

I think that is what is happening to Fibre Channel, and it may have already started. It will become (or already is) a caretaker platform. It will run the workloads of yesterday (or rather the workloads that were designed yesterday), while the workloads of today and tomorrow have a vastly different set of requirements, and where Fibre Channel doesn’t make as much sense.

Why Fibre Channel Doesn’t Make Sense in the Cloud World

There are a few trends in storage that are working against Fibre Channel:

  • Public cloud growth outpaces private cloud
  • Private cloud storage endpoints are more ephemeral and storage connectivity is more dynamic
  • Block storage is taking a back seat to object (and file) storage
  • RAIN versus RAID
  • IP storage is as performant as Fibre Channel, and more flexible

Cloudy With A Chance of Obsolescence

The transition to cloud-style operations isn’t a great for Fibre Channel. First, we have the public cloud providers: Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, Rackspace, Google, etc. They tend not to use much Fibre Channel (if any at all) and rely instead on IP-based storage or other solutions. And what Fibre Channel they might consume, it’s still far fewer ports purchased (HBAs, switches) as workloads migrate to public cloud versus private data centers.

The Ephemeral Data Center

In enterprise datacenters, most operations are what I would call traditional virtualization. And that is dominated by VMware’s vSphere. However, vSphere isn’t a private cloud. According to NIST, to be a private cloud you need to be self service, multi-tenant, programmable, dynamic, and show usage. That ain’t vSphere.

For VMware’s vSphere, I believe Fibre Channel is the hands down best storage platform. vSphere likes very static block storage, and Fibre Channel is great at providing that. Everything is configured by IT staff, a few things are automated though Fibre Channel configurations are still done mostly by hand.

Probably the biggest difference between traditional virtualization (i.e. VMware vSphere) and private cloud is the self-service aspect. This also makes it a very dynamic environment. Developers, DevOpsers, and overall consumers of IT resources configure spin-up and spin-down their own resources. This leads to a very, very dynamic environment.


Endpoints are far more ephemeral, as demonstrated here by Mr Mittens.

Where we used to deal with virtual machines as everlasting constructs (pets), we’re moving to a more ephemeral model (cattle). In Netflix’s infrastructure, the average lifespan of a virtual machine is 36 hours. And compared to virtual machines, containers (such as Docker containers) tend to live for even shorter periods of time. All of this means a very dynamic environment, and that requires self-service portals and automation.

And one thing we’re not used to in the Fibre Channel world is a dynamic environment.

scaredgifA SAN administrator at the thought of automated zoning and zonesets

Virtual machines will need to attach to block storage on the fly, or they’ll rely on other types of storage, such as container images, retrieved from an object store, and run on a local file system. For these reasons, Fibre Channel is not usually a consideration for Docker, OpenStack (though there is work on Fibre Channel integration), and very dynamic, ephemeral workloads.


Block storage isn’t growing, at least not at the pace that object storage is. Object storage is becoming the de-facto way to store the deluge of unstructured data being stored. Object storage consumption is growing at 25% per year according to IDC, while traditional RAID revenues seem to be contracting.

Making it RAIN


In order to handle the immense scale necessary, storage is moving from RAID to RAIN. RAID is of course Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, and RAIN is Redundant Array of Inexpensive Nodes. RAID-based storage typically relies on controllers and shelves. This is a scale-up style approach. RAIN is a scale-out approach.

For these huge scale storage requirements, such as Hadoop’s HDFS, Ceph, Swift, ScaleIO, and other RAIN handle the exponential increase in storage requirements better than traditional scale-up storage arrays. And primarily these technologies are using IP connectivity/Ethernet as the node-to-node and node-to-client communication, and not Fibre Channel. Fibre Channel is great for many-to-one communication (many initiators to a few storage arrays) but is not great at many-to-many meshing.

Ethernet and Fibre Channel

It’s been widely regarded in many circles that Fibre Channel is a higher performance protocol than say, iSCSI. That was probably true in the days of 1 Gigabit Ethernet, however these days there’s not much of a difference between IP storage and Fibre Channel in terms of latency and IOPS. Provided you don’t saturate the link (neither handles eliminates congestion issues when you oversaturate a link) they’re about the same, as shown in several tests such as this one from NetApp and VMware.

Fibre Channel is currently at 16 Gigabit per second maximum. Ethernet is 10, 40, and 100, though most server connections are currently at 10 Gigabit, with some storage arrays being 40 Gigabit. Iin 2016 Fibre Channel is coming out with 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel HBAs and switches, and Ethernet is coming out with 25 Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and switches. They both provide nearly identical throughput.

Wait, what?

But isn’t 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel faster than 25 Gigabit Ethernet? Yes, but barely.

  • 25 Gigabit Ethernet raw throughput: 3125 MB/s
  • 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel raw throughput: 3200 MB/s

Do what now?

32 Gigabit Fibre Channel isn’t really 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel. It actually runs at about 28 Gigabits per second. This is a holdover from the 8/10 encoding in 1/2/4/8 Gigabit FC, where every Gigabit of speed brought 100 MB/s of throughput (instead of 125 MB/s like in 1 Gigabit Ethernet). When FC switched to 64/66 encoding for 16 Gigabit FC, they kept the 100 MB/s per gigabit, and as such lowered the speed (16 Gigabit FC is really 14 Gigabit FC). This concept is outlined here in this screencast I did a while back. 16 Gigabit Fibre Channel is really 14 Gigabit Fibre Channel. 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel is 28 Gigabit Fibre Channel.

As a result, 32 Gigabit Fibre Channel is only about 2% faster than 25 Gigabit Ethernet. 128 Gigabit Fibre Channel (12800 MB/s) is only 2% faster than 100 Gigabit Ethernet (12500 MB/s).

Ethernet/IP Is More Flexible

In the world of bare metal server to storage array, and virtualization hosts to storage array, Fibre Channel had a lot of advantages over Ethernet/IP. These advantages included a fairly easy to learn distributed access control system, a purpose-built network designed exclusively to carry storage traffic, and a separately operated fabric.  But those advantages are turning into disadvantages in a more dynamic and scaled-out environment.

In terms of scaling, Fibre Channel has limits on how big a fabric can get. Typically it’s around 50 switches and a couple thousand endpoints. The theoretical maximums are higher (based on the 24-bit FC_ID address space) but both Brocade and Cisco have practical limits that are much lower. For the current (or past) generations of workloads, this wasn’t a big deal. Typically endpoints numbered in the dozens or possibly hundreds for the large scale deployments. With a large OpenStack deployment, it’s not unusual to have tens of thousands of virtual machines in a large OpenStack environment, and if those virtual machines need access to block storage, Fibre Channel probably isn’t the best choice. It’s going to be iSCSI or NFS. Plus, you can run it all on a good Ethernet fabric, so why spend money on extra Fibre Channel switches when you can run it all on IP? And IP/Ethernet fabrics scale far beyond Fibre Channel fabrics.

Another issue is that Fibre Channel doesn’t play well with others. There’s only two vendors that make Fibre Channel switches today, Cisco and Brocade (if you have a Fibre Channel switch that says another vendor made it, such as IBM, it’s actually a re-badged Brocade). There are ways around it in some cases (NPIV), though you still can’t mesh two vendor fabrics reliably.


Pictured: Fibre Channel Interoperability Mode

And personally, one of my biggest pet peeves regarding Fibre Channel is the lack of ability to create a LAG to a host. There’s no way to bond several links together to a host. It’s all individual links, which requires special configurations to make a storage array with many interfaces utilize them all (essentially you zone certain hosts).

None of these are issues with Ethernet. Ethernet vendors (for the most part) play well with others. You can build an Ethernet Layer 2 or Layer 3 fabric with multiple vendors, there are plenty of vendors that make a variety of Ethernet switches, and you can easily create a LAG/MCLAG to a host.


My name is MCLAG and my flows be distributed by a deterministic hash of a header value or combination of header values.

What About FCoE?

FCoE will share the fate of Fibre Channel. It has the same scaling, multi-node communication, multi-vendor interoperability, and dynamism problems as native Fibre Channel. Multi-hop FCoE never really caught on, as it didn’t end up being less expensive than Fibre Channel, and it tended to complicate operations, not simplify them. Single-hop/End-host FCoE, like the type used in Cisco’s popular UCS server system, will continue to be used in environments where blades need Fibre Channel connectivity. But again, I think that need has peaked, or will peak shortly.

Fibre Channel isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, just like Unix servers can still be found in many datacenters. But I think we’ve just about hit the peak. The workload requirements have shifted. It’s my belief that for the current/older generation of workloads (bare metal, traditional/pet virtualization), Fibre Channel is the best platform. But as we transition to the next generation of platforms and applications, the needs have changed and they don’t align very well with Fibre Channel’s strengths.

It’s an IP world now. We’re just forwarding packets in it.



Ethernet over Fibre Channel

Since the 80’s, Ethernet has dominated the networking world. The LAN, the WAN, and the MAN are all now dominated by Ethernet links. FIDDI, HIPPI, ATM, Frame Relay, they’ve all gone by the wayside. But there is one protocol that has stuck around to run alongside Ethernet, and that’s Fibre Channel. While Fibre Channel has mostly sat in the shadow of Ethernet, relegated to only storage traffic, it’s now poised to overtake Ethernet in the battle for the LAN. And the way that Fibre Channel is taking on Ethernet is with Ethernet over Fibre Channel.


Suck it, Metcalfe

While Ethernet has enjoyed tremendous popularity, it has several (debilitating) limitations. For one, forwarding is haunted the possibility of a loop, and Spanning Tree Protocol is required to keep a watchful eye. Unfortunately, STP is almost as bad as a loop, with the ample opportunity for misconfigurations (rouge root bridges) and other shenanigans.  TRILL, a Layer 2 overlay for Ethernet that allows multi-pathing, hasn’t found its way into a commercial product yet, and its derivatives (FabricPath from Cisco and VCS from Brocade) haven’t seen much in the way of adoption.

Rathern than pile fix upon fix on Ethernet, SAN administrators (known for being the loose canons of the data center) are making a bold push to take over LAN networks as well… and they’re winning.

The T17 committe had been established by the INCITS, which is the standards body that is responsible for Fibre Channel, FCoE, and now EoFC. The T17 is responsible for all the specifications around EoFC, and in particular the interface between the two.

We really have a lot of advantages over Ethernet in terms of topology and forwarding. For one, we’re a lossless network, providing a lot more reliability than a traditional Ethernet network. We also have multi-pathing built in with FSPF routing, while still providing Layer 2 adjacencies that are still required by the old crusty crapplications that are still on people’s networks, somehow.” -John Etherman, T17 committee chair.

They’ve made a lot of progress in a relatively short time, from ironing out the specifications to getting ASICs spun, and their work is bearing fruit. Products are starting to ship, and several marquee clients have announced fabrics built entirely with EoFC.

A Day in the life of a EoFC Frame

To keep compatibility with older Ethernet/TCP/IP stacks, CNHs (Converged Network HBAs) provide Ethernet interfaces to the host operating system. The frame is formed by the host, and the CNH encapsulates the Ethernet frame into a Fibre Channel frame. Since standard Ethernet MTU is only 1500 bytes, they fit quite nicely into the maximum 2048 byte Fibre Channel frame. The T13 working group also provides specifications for Jumbo Ethernet frames up to 9216 bytes, by either fragmenting the frame into multiple 2048-byte Fibre Channel frames,

WWPNs are derived from the MAC addresses that the hosts sees. Since MAC addresses aren’t a full 64-bits, the T17 working group has allocated the 80:08 prefix to EoFC. So if your MAC address was 00:25:B6:01:23:45, the WWPN would be 80:08:00:25:B6:01:23:45. This keeps the EoFC WWPNs out of the range of the initiators (starting with 1 or 2) and targets (starting with 5).


FC_IDs are assigned to the WWPNs on a transitory basis, and are what the Fibre Channel headers have in terms of source/destination addresses. When the Fibre Channel frame reaches its destination NX_Port (Node LAN port), the Ethernet frame is de-encapsulated from the Fibre Channel frame, and the hosts networking stack takes care of the rest. From a host’s perspective, it has no idea the transport is Fibre Channel.


The biggest benefit to EoFC is the lossless network that Fibre Channel provides. Since the majority of traffic is East/West in modern data center workloads, busy hosts can suffer from an incast problem, where the buffers can be overloaded as a single 10 Gigabit link receives packets from multiple sources, all operating at 10 Gigabit. Fibre Channel transport provides port to port flow control, and can ensure that nothing gets dropped.


Configuration of EoFC is fairly straightforward. I’ve got access to a new Nexus 8008, with a 32 Gbit EoFC line card that I’ve connected to a Cisco C-series server with a CNH.

nexus1# feature eofc
EoFC feature checked out
Loading Ethernet module...
Loading Spanning Tree module...
Loading LLDP...
Grace period license remaining: 110 days

nexus1# vlan 10
nexus1(vlandb)# vsan 10
nexus1(vsandb)# 10 name Storage-A
nexus1(vsandb)# vsan 1010
nexus1(vsandb)# vsan 1010 name Ethernet transport
nexus1(vsandb)# eofc vlan 10
nexus1(vsandb)# interface veth1
nexus1(vif)# switchport
nexus1(vif)# switchport mode access
nexus1(vif)# switchport access vlan 10
nexus1(vif)# bind interface fc1/1
nexus1(vif)# no shut
nexus1(vif)# int fc1/1
nexus1(if)# switchport mode F
nexus1(if)# switchport allowed vsan 10,1010
nexus1(if)# no shut 

Doing a show interface shows me that my connection is live.

 nexus1# show interface ethernet veth1 
 vEthernet1 is up
 Hardware: 1000/10000 Ethernet, address: 000d.ece7.df48 (bia 000d.ece7.df48)
 Attached to: fc1/1 (pWWN: 80:08:00:0D:EC:E7:DF:48)
 MTU 1500 bytes, BW 10000000 Kbit, DLY 10 usec,
 reliability 255/255, txload 1/255, rxload 1/255
 Encapsulation EoFC/ARPA
 Port mode is EoFC
 full-duplex, 32 Gb/s, media type is 1/2/4/8/16/32g
 Beacon is turned off
 Input flow-control is off, output flow-control is off
 Rate mode is dedicated
 Switchport monitor is off
 Last link flapped 09:03:57
 Last clearing of "show interface" counters never
 30 seconds input rate 2376 bits/sec, 0 packets/sec
 30 seconds output rate 1584 bits/sec, 0 packets/sec
 Load-Interval #2: 5 minute (300 seconds)
 input rate 1.58 Kbps, 0 pps; output rate 792 bps, 0 pps
 0 unicast packets 10440 multicast packets 0 broadcast packets
 10440 input packets 11108120 bytes
 0 jumbo packets 0 storm suppression packets
 0 runts 0 giants 0 CRC 0 no buffer
 0 input error 0 short frame 0 overrun 0 underrun 0 ignored
 0 watchdog 0 bad etype drop 0 bad proto drop 0 if down drop
 0 input with dribble 0 input discard
 0 Rx pause
 0 unicast packets 20241 multicast packets 105 broadcast packets
 20346 output packets 7633280 bytes
 0 jumbo packets
 0 output errors 0 collision 0 deferred 0 late collision
 0 lost carrier 0 no carrier 0 babble
 0 Tx pause
 1 interface resets

Speeds and Feeds

EoFC is backwards compatible with 1/2/4/8 and 16 Gigabit Fibre Channel, but it’s really expected to take off with the newest 32/128 Gbit interfaces that are being released from vendors like Cisco, Juniper, and Brocade. Brocade, QLogix, Intel, and Emulex are all expected to provide CNHs operating at 32 Gbit speeds, with 32 and 128 Gbit interfaces on line cards and fixed switches to operate as ISLs.

Nexus 8009

Nexus 8008: 384 ports of 32 Gbit EoFC

Switches are already shipping from Cisco and Brocade, with Juniper to release their newest QFC line before the end of Q2.

Fibre Channel and FCoE: Some Basics

There’s been some misconceptions and misinformation lately about FCoE. Like any technology, there are times when it makes sense and times when it doesn’t, but much of the anti-FCoE talk lately has been primarily ignorance and/or wilful misrepresentation.

In an effort to fight that ignorance, I put together a quick introduction to how FC and FCoE works. They both operate on the basic premise that you can’t drop any frames. Fibre Channel was built as a lossless protocol, and with a bit of work, Ethernet can also be lossless.

Check it out:

Learn what Russ Fellows Doesn’t Know

So how’s this for a condescending tweet?

It’s from Russ Fellows, author of the infamous FCoE “study” (which has been widely debunked for its many hilarious errors):

Interesting article (check it out). But the sad/amusing irony is that he’s wrong. How is he wrong? Here’s what Russ Fellows doesn’t know about storage:

1, 2, 4, and 8 Gbit Fibre Channel (as he points out) uses 8/10 bit encoding. That means about a 20% of the bandwidth available was lost due to encoding overhead (as Russ pointed out). That’s why 8 Gbit Fibre Channel only provides 800 MB/s of connectivity, even though 8,000 Megabits per second equates to 1,000 Megabytes per second (8000 Megabits / (8 bits per byte) = 1,000 Megabytes).

With this overhead in mind, Fibre Channel was designed to give 100 MB/s for every Gigabit of speed. It never increased the baud rate to make up for the overhead.

Ethernet, on the other hand, did increase the baud rate to make up for the overhead. Gigabit Ethernet uses the same 8/10 bit encoding, but they kicked the baud rate up to 1.25 gigabaud to make up the differences. As such, Gigabit Ethernet provides true 1 gigabit of throughput, or 125 Megabytes per second.

10 Gigabit Ethernet moved to 64/66 encoding, and kept to the approach of not letting the overhead impact throughput. 10 Gigabit Ethernet then provides 1250 Megabytes per second of throughput. The baud rate is 10.3125, giving true 10 Gigabit per second of data.

When Fibre Channel moved to the more efficient 64/66 bit encoding, rather than change the 100 MB/s per gigabit to 125 MB/s (which you get with all Ethernet speeds), they left the ratio (1 Gigabit to 100 MB/s) the same. Thus, every Gigabit = 100 MB/s, just like in previous speeds (1/2/4/8 FC). So while 16 Gbit Fibre Channel provides 1600 MB/s of throughput, the baud rate is actually only 14 gigabaud, and not true 16 Gbit. And don’t take my word for it, check out page 7 of Scott Shimomura‘s (of Brocade) presentation at the SPDE conference.

  • 1 Gbit Fibre Channel = 100 MB/s
  • 1 Gbit Ethernet = 125 MB/s
  • 2 Gbit Fibre Channel = 200 MB/s
  • 4 Gbit Fibre Channel = 400 MB/s
  • 8 Gbit Fibre Channel = 800 MB/s
  • 10 Gbit Ethernet/FCoE = 1250 MB/s
  • 16 Gbit Fibre Channel = 1600 MB/s

10 Gigabit Ethernet provides 1250 MB/s, providing true 10 Gigabit Ethernet, and not putting the slight overhead into the equation. So while 10 Gigabit Ethernet is true 10 Gigabit, 16 Gigabit Fibre Channel is actually 14 Gigabit Fibre Channel (14.025, to be exact).

And that’s what Russ Fellows doesn’t know. His entire article is based on a false premise: Thinking that the move to 64/66 makes 16 Gbit pass more than twice as much traffic as 8 Gbit. But it’s not. He says that with 8 Gbit FC, 1+1 = 1.6 (when compared to 16 Gbit FC), which is factually incorrect for the reasons I’ve just explained. Yes, 64/66 bit encoding is more efficient. But they dropped the baud rate, negating the efficiency gains

8 Gigabit Fibre Channel provides 800 Megabytes per second of data transfer. 16 Gigabit Fibre Channel (really 14 Gigabit Fibre Channel) provides 1600 Megabytes per second of data transfer. 800 + 800 = 1600.

Sorry Russ, 1+1 really does equal 2. Even in Fibre Channel.


Top 5 Reasons The Evaluator Group Screwed Up

It’s been a while since the trainwreck of a “study” commissioned by Brocade and performed by The Evaluator Group,  but it’s still being discussed in various storage circles (and that’s not good news for Brocade). Some pretty much parroted the results, seemingly without reading the actual test. Then got all pissy when confronted about it.  I did a piece on my interpretations of the results, as did Dave Alexander of WWT and J Metz of Cisco. Our mutual conclusion can be best summed up with a single animated GIF.



But since a bit of time has passed, I’ve had time to absorb Dave and J’s opinions, as well as others, I’ve come up with a list of the Top 5 Reasons by The Evaluator Group Screwed Up. This isn’t the complete list, of course, but some of the more glaring problems. Let’s start with #1:

Reason #1: I Have No Idea What I’m Doing

Their hilariously bad conclusion to the higher variance in response times and higher CPU usage was that it was the cause of the software initiators. Except, they didn’t use software initiators. The had actually configured hardware initiators, and didn’t know it. Let that sink in: They’re charged with performing an evaluation, without knowing what they’re doing.

The Cisco UCS VIC 1240 hardware CNA’s were utilized.  Referring to them as software initiators caused some confusion. The Cisco VIC is a hardware initiator and we configured them with virtual HBAs. Evaluator Group has no knowledge of the internal architecture of the VIC or its driver.  Our commentary of the possible cause for higher CPU utilization is our opinion and further analysis would be required to pinpoint the specific root cause.

Of course, it wasn’t the software initiator. They didn’t use a software initiator, but they were so clueless, they didn’t know they’d actually used a hardware initiator. Without knowing how they performed their tests (since they didn’t publish their methodology) it’s purely speculation, but it looks like the problem was caused by congestion (from them architecting the UCS solution incorrectly).

Reason #2: They’re Hilariously Bad At Math.

They claimed FCoE required 50% more cables, based on the fact that there were 50% more cables in the FCoE solution than the FC solution. Which makes sense… except that the FC system had zero Ethernet.

That’s right, in the HP/Fibre Channel solution, each blade had absolutely zero Ethernet connectivity. In the Cisco UCS solution, every blade had full Ethernet and Fibre Channel connectivity.  None. Zilch. Why did they do that? Probably because had they included any network connectivity to the HP system, the cable count would have shifted to FCoE’s favor.  Let me state this again, because it’s astonishingly stupid: They claimed FCoE (which included Ethernet and FC connectivity) required more cables without including any network connectivity for the HP/FC system. 


Also, they made some power/cooling claims, despite the fact that the UCS solution didn’t require a separate FC switch (it’s capable of being a full-fledged Fibre Channel switch by itself), though the HP solution would have required a separate pair of Ethernet switches (which wasn’t included). So yeah, their math is a bit off. Had they done things, you know, correctly, the power, cooling, and cable count would have flipped in favor of FCoE.

Reason #3: UCS is Hard, You Guys!

They whinged about UCS being more difficult to setup. Anytime you’re dealing with unfamiliar technology, it’s natural that it’s going to be more difficult. However, they claimed that they had zero experience with HP as well (seriously, who at Brocade hired these guys?) How easy is UCS? Here is a video done from Amsterdam where a couple of Cisco techs added a new chassis and blade and had it booted up and running ESXi in less than 30 minutes from in the box to booted. Cisco UCS is different than other blade systems, but it’s also very easy (and very quick) to stand up. And keep in mind, the video I linked was done in Amsterdam, so they were probably baked   

Reason #4: It Contradicts Everyone Else’s Results (Especially those that know what they’re doing)

For the past couple of years, VMware and NetApp have been doing performance tests on various storage protocols. Here’s one from a few years ago, which includes (native) 4 and 8 Gbit Fibre Channel, 10 Gbit FCoE, 10 Gbit iSCSI, and 10 Gbit NFS. The conclusion? The protocol doesn’t much matter. They all came out about the same when normalized for bandwidth. The big difference is in the storage backend. At least they published their methodology (I’m looking at you, Evaluator Group). Here’s one from Demartek that shows a mixture of storage protocols saturating 10 Gbit Ethernet. Again, the limitation is only the link speed itself, not the protocol. And again, again, Demartek published their methodology.

Reason #5: How Did They Set Everything Up? Magic!

Most of the time with these commissioned reports, the details of how it’s configured are given so that the results can be reproduced and audited. How did the Evaluator Group set up their environment?


As far as I can tell, magic. There’s several things they could have easily gotten wrong with the UCS setup, and given their mistake about software/hardware initiators, quite likely. They didn’t even mention which storage vendor they used.

So there you have it. A bit of a re-hash, but hey, it was a dumb report. The upside though is that it did provide me with some entertainment.

Fibre Channel: The Heart of New SDN Solutions

From Juniper to Cisco to VMware, companies are spouting up new SDN solutions. Juniper’s Contrail, Cisco’s ACI, VMware’s NSX, and more are all vying to be the next generation of data center networking. What is surprising, however, is what’s at the heart of these new technologies.

Is it VXLAN, NVGRE, Openflow? Nope. It’s Fibre Channel.


If you think about it, it makes sense. Fibre Channel has been doing fabrics since before we ever called Ethernet fabrics, well, fabrics. And this isn’t the first time that Fibre Channel has shown up in unusual places. There’s a version of Fibre Channel that runs inside certain airplanes, including jet fighters like the F-22.


Keep the skies safe from FCoE (sponsored by the Evaluator Group)

New generation of switches have been capable of Data Center Bridging (DCB), which enables Fibre Channel over Ethernet. These chips are also capable of doing native Fibre Channel So rather than build complicated VPLS fabrics or routed networks, various data center switching companies are leveraging the inherent Fibre Channel capabilities of the merchant silicon and building Fibre Channel-based underlay networks to support an IP-based overlay.

Buffer-to-buffer (B2B) credit system and losslessness of Fibre Channel, plus the new 32/128 Gigabit interfaces with the newest Fibre Channel standard are all being leveraged for these underlays. I find it surprising that so many companies are adopting this, you’d think it’d be just Brocade. But Cisco, Arista (who notoriously shunned FCoE) and Juniper are all on board with new or announced SDN offerings that are based mostly or in part on Fibre Channel.

However, most of the switches from various vendors are primarily Ethernet today, so the 10/40 Gigabit interfaces can run FCoE until more switches are available with native FC interfaces. Of course, these switches will still be required to have a number of native Ethernet ports in order to connect to border networks that aren’t part of the overlay network, so there will be still a need for Ethernet. But it seems the market has spoken, and they want Fibre Channel.


Changing Data Center Workloads

Networking-wise, I’ve spent my career in the data center. I’m pursuing the CCIE Data Center. I study virtualization, storage, and DC networking. Right now, the landscape in the network is constantly changing, as it has been for the past 15 years. However, with SDN, merchant silicon, overlay networks, and more, the rate of change in a data center network seems to be accelerating.


Things are changing fast in data center networking. You get the picture

Whenever you have a high rate of change, you’ll end up with a lot of questions such as:

  • Where does this leave the current equipment I’ve got now?
  • Would SDN solve any of the issues I’m having?
  • What the hell is SDN, anyway?
  • I’m buying vendor X, should I look into vendor Y?
  • What features should I be looking for in a data center networking device?

I’m not actually going to answer any of these questions in this article. I am, however, going to profile some of the common workloads that you find in data centers currently. Your data center may have one, a few, or all of these workloads. It may not have any of them. Your data center may have one of the workloads listed, but my description and/or requirements is way off. All certainly possible. These are generalizations, and with all generalizations your mileage may vary. With that disclaimer out of the way, strap in. Let’s go for a ride.

Traditional Virtualization

It’s interesting to say that something which only exploded into the data center in a big way in about 2008 as now being “traditional”, rather than “new-fangled”. But that’s the situation we have here. Traditional virtualization workload  is centered primarily around VMware vSphere. There are other traditional virtualization products of course, such as Red Hat’s RHEV, Xen, and Microsoft Hyper-V, but VMware has the largest market share for this by far.

  • Latency is not a huge concern (30 usecs not a big deal)
  • Layer 2 adjacencies are mandatory (required for vMotion)
  • Large Layer 2 domains (thousands of hosts layer 2 adjacent)
  • Converged infrastructures (storage and data running on the same wires, FCoE, iSCSI, NFS, SMB3, etc.)
  • Buffer requirements aren’t typically super high. Bursting isn’t much of an issue for most workloads of this type.
  • Fibre Channel is often the storage protocol of choice, along with NFS and some iSCSI as well

Cisco has been especially successful in this realm with the Nexus line because of vPC, FabricPath, OTV and (to a much lesser extent) LISP, as they address some of the challenges with workload mobility (though not all of them, such as the speed of light). Arista, Juniper, and many others also compete in this particular realm, but Cisco is the market leader.

With the multi-pathing Layer 2 technologies such as SPB, TRILL, Cisco FabricPath, and Brocade VCS (the latter two are based on TRILL), you can build multi-spine leaf/spine networks/CLOS networks that you can’t with spanning-tree based networks, even with MLAG.

This type of network is what I typically see in data centers today. However, there is a shift towards Layer 3 networks and cloud workloads over traditional virtualization, so it will be interested to see how long traditional virtualization lasts.


VDI (Virtual Desktops) are a workload with the exact same requirements as traditional virtualization, with one main difference: The storage requirements are much, much higher.

  • Latency is not as important (most DC-grade switches would qualify), especially since latency is measured in milliseconds for remote desktop users
  • Layer 2 adjacencies are mandatory (required for vMotion)
  • Large Layer 2 domains
  • Converged infrastructures
  • Buffer requirements aren’t typically very high
  • High-end storage backends. All about the IOPs, y’all

For storage here, IOPs are the biggest concern. VDI eats IOPs like candy.

Legacy Workloads

This is the old, old school. And by old school, I mean late 90s, early 2000s. Before virtualization changed the landscape. There’s still quite a few crusty old servers, with uptimes measured in years, running long-abandoned applications. The problem is, these types of applications are usually running something mission critical and/or significant revenue generating. Organizations just haven’t found a way out of it yet. And hey, they’re working right now. Often running on proprietary Unix systems, they couldn’t or wouldn’t be migrated to a virtualized environment (where it would be much easier to deal with).

The hardware still works, so why change something that works? Because it would be tough to find more. It’s also probably out of vendor-supported service.

  • Latency? Who cares. Is it less than 1 second? Good enough.
  • Layer 2 adjacencies, if even required, are typically very small, typically just needed for the local clustering application (which is usually just stink-out-loud awful)
  • 100 megabit and gigabit Ethernet typically. 10 Gigabit? That’s science-fiction talk!
  • Buffers? You mean like, what shines the floor?


My own personal opinion is that this is the only place where Cisco Catalyst switches belong in a data center, and even then only because they’re already there. If you’re going with Cisco, I think everything else (and everything new) in the DC should be Nexus.

Cloud Workloads (Private Cloud)

If you look at a cloud workload, it looks very similar to the previous traditional virtualization workload. They both use VMs sitting on top of hypervisors. They both have underlying infrastructure of compute, network, and storage to support these VMs. The difference is primarily is in the operational model.

It’s often described as the difference between pets and cattle. With traditional virtualization, you have pets. You care what happens to these VMs. They have HA and DRS and other technologies to care for them. They’re given clever names, like Bart and Lisa, or Happy and Sleepy. With cloud VMs, they’re not given fun names. We don’t do vMotion/Live Migration with them. When we need them, they’re spun up. When they’re not, they’re destroyed. We don’t back them up, we don’t care if the host they reside on dies so long as there are other hosts carrying the workload. The workload is automatically sharded across the available hosts using logic in the application. Instead of backups, templates are used to create new VMs when the workload increases. And when the workload decreases, some of the VMs get destroyed. State is not kept on any single VM, instead the state of the application (and underlying database) is sharded to the available systems.

This is very different than traditional virtualization. Because the workload distribution is handled with the application, we don’t need to do vMotion and thus have Layer 2 adjacencies. This makes it much more flexible for the network architects to put together network to support this type of workload. Storage with this type of workload also tends to be IP-based (NFS, iSCSI) rather than FC-based (native Fibre Channel or FCoE).

With cloud-based workloads, there’s also a huge self-service component. VMs are spun-up and managed by developers or end-users, rather than the IT staff. There’s typically some type of portal that end-users can use to spin up/down resources. Chargebacks are also a component, so that even in a private cloud setting, there’s a resource cost associated and can be tracked.

OpenStack is a popular choice for these cloud workloads, as is Amazon and Windows Azure. The former is a private cloud, with the later two being public cloud.

  • Latency requirements are mostly the same as traditional virtualization
  • Because vMotion isn’t required, it’s all Layer 3, all the time
  • Storage is mostly IP-based, running on the same network infrastructure (not as much Fibre Channel)
  • Buffer requirements are typically the same as traditional virtualization
  • VXLAN/NVGRE burned into the chips for SDN/Overlays

You can use much cheaper switches for this type of network, since the advanced Layer 2 features (OTV, FabricPath, SPB/TRILL, VCS) aren’t needed. You can build a very simple Layer 3 mesh using inexpensive and lower power 10/40/100 Gbit ports.

However, features such as VXLAN/NVGRE encap/decap is increasingly important. The new Trident2 chips from Broadcom support this now, and several vendors, including Cisco, Juniper, and Arista all have switches based on this new SoC (switch-on-chip) from Broadcom.

High Frequency Trading

This is a very specialized market, and one that has very specialized requirements.

  • Latency is of the utmost concern. To the point of making sure ports are on the same ASIC. Latency is measured in nano-seconds, microseconds are an eternity
  • 10 Gbit at the very least
  • Money is typically not a concern
  • Over-subscription is non-existent (again, money no concern)
  • Buffers are a trade off, they can increase latency but also prevent packet loss

This is a very niche market, one that Arista dominates. Cisco and a few other vendors have small inroads here, using the same merchant silicon that Arista uses, however Arista has had huge experience in this market. Every tick of the clock can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single trade, so companies have no problem throwing huge amounts of money at this issue to shave every last nanosecond off of latency.

Hadoop/Big Data

  • Latency is of high concern
  • Large buffers are critical
  • Over-subscription is low
  • Layer 2 adjacency is neither required nor desired
  • Layer 3 Leaf/spine networks
  • Storage is distributed, sharded over IP

Arista has also extremely successful in this market. They glue PC RAM onto their switch boards to provide huge buffers (around 760 MB) to each port, so it can absorb quite a bit of bursty traffic, which occurs a lot in these types of setups. That’s about .6 seconds of buffering a 10 Gbit link. Huge buffers will not prevent congestion, but they do help absorb situations where you might be overwhelmed for a short period of time.

Since nodes don’t need to be Layer 2 adjacent, simple Layer 3 ECMP networks can be created using inexpensive and basic switches. You don’t need features like FabricPath, TRILL, SPB, OTV. Just fast, inexpensive, low power ports. 10 Gigabit is the bare minimum for these networks, with 40 and 100 Gbit used for connectivity to the spines. Arista (especially with their 7500E platform) does very well in this area. Cisco is moving into this area with the Nexus 9000 line, which was announced late last year.



Understanding the requirements for the various workloads may help you determine the right switches for you. It’s interesting to see how quickly the market is changing. Perhaps 2 years ago, the large-Layer 2 networks seemed like the immediate future. Then all of a sudden Layer 3 mesh networks became popular again. Then you’ve got SDN like VMware’s NSX and Cisco’s ACI on top of that. Interesting times, man. Interesting times.


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