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.


First Call I Made When I First Heard About “Gen5 Fibre Channel”


Fibre Channel: Generations

In case you haven’t heard, Brocade is rebranding their 16 Gbit Fibre Channel offerings as Generation 5 Fibre Channel. Upcoming 32 Gbit Fibre Channel will also be called “Gen 6 Fibre Channel”. Seriously.


Cisco’s J Metz responded, and then Brocade responded to that. And a full-on storage smack-down started.

And you thought storage was boring.ilikethisship

It’s exciting!

Brocade is trying to de-emphasize speed as the primary differentiator to a specific Fibre Channel technology, which is weird, since that’s by far the primary differentiator between the generations. This strategy has two major flaws as I see it:

Flaw #1: They’re trying to make it look like you can solve a problem that you really can’t with 16 Gbit FC. Whether you emphasize speed or other technological aspects of 16 Gbit Fibre Channel, 16 Gbit/Gen 5 isn’t going to solve any of the major problems that currently exists in the data center or storage for that matter, at least for the vast majority of Fibre Channel installations. Virtualization workloads, databases, and especially VDI are thrashing our storage systems. However, generally speaking (always exceptions) we’re not saturating the physical links. Not on the storage array links, not on the ISLs, and definitely not on the server FC links. Primarily the issue we face in the data center are limitations are IOPS.


The latency differences between Fibre Channel speeds is insignificant compared to the latencies introduced by overwhelmed storage arrays

Or, no wait, guys. Guys. Guys. Check out the… choke point

16 Gbit can give us more throughput, but so can aggregating more 8 Gbit links, especially since single flows/transactions/file operations aren’t likely to eat up more than 8 Gbit (or even a fraction of that). There’s a lower serialization delay and lower latency associated with 16 Gbit, but that’s minuscule compared to the latencies introduced by storage systems. The vast majority of workloads aren’t likely to see significant benefit moving to 16 Gbit. So for right now, those in the storage world are concentrating on the arrays, and not the fabric. And that’s where they should be concentrating.

From one of Brocade’s posts, they mention this of Gen5 Fibre Channel:

 “It’s about the innovative technology and unique capabilities that solve customer challenges.”

Fibre Channel is great. And Brocade has a great Fibre Channel offering. For the most part, better than Cisco. But there isn’t any innovation in this generation of Fibre Channel other than the speed increase. I’m kind of surprised Brocade didn’t call it something like “CloudFC”. This reeks of cloud washing, without the use of the word cloud. I mean, it’s Fibre Channel. It’s reliable, it’s simple to implement, best practices are easily understood, and it’s not terribly sexy, and calling it Gen5 isn’t going to change any of that.

Flaw #2: It creates market confusion.

Cisco doesn’t have any 16 Gbit Fibre Channel offerings (they’re pushing for FCoE, which is another issue). And when they do get 16 Gbit, they’re probably not going to call it Gen 5. Nor is most of the other Fibre Channel vendors, such as Emulex, Qlogic, NetApp, EMC, etc. HP and Dell have somewhat gone with it, but they kind of have to since they sell re-branded Brocade kit (it’s worth noting that even HP’s material is peppered with the words “16 Gbit”). So having another term is going to cause a lot of unnecessary conversations.

Here’s how I suspect a lot of Brocade conversations with new and existing customers will go:

“We recommend our Gen 5 products”

“What’s Gen 5?”

“It’s 16 Gbit Fibre Channel”

“OK, why didn’t you just say that?”

This is what’s happened in the load balancing world. A little over six years ago, Gartner and marketing departments tried to rename load balancers to “Application Delivery Controllers”, or ADCs for short. No one outside of marketing knows that the hell an ADC is. But anyone who’s worked in a data center knows what a load balancer is. They’re the same thing, and I’ve had to have a lot of unnecessary conversations since. Because of this, I’m particularly sensitive to changing the name of something that everyone already knows of for no good frickin’ reason.

Where does that leave Fibre Channel? For the challenges that most organizations are facing in the data center, an upgrade to 16 Gbit FC would be a waste of money. Sure, if given the choice between 8 and 16 Gbit FC, I’d pick 16. But there’s no compelling reason for the vast majority of existing workloads to convert to 16 Gbit FC. It just doesn’t solve any of the problems that we’re having. If you’re building a new fabric, then yes, absolutely look at 16 Gbit. It’s better to have more than to have less of course, but the benefits of 16 Gbit probably won’t be felt for a few years in terms of throughput. It’s just not a pain point right now, but it will be in the future.

In fact, looking at most of the offerings from the various storage vendors (EMC, NetApp, etc.), they’re mostly content to continue to offer 8 Gbit as their maximum speed. The same goes for server vendors (though there are 16 Gbit HBAs now available). I teach Cisco UCS, and most Cisco UCS installations plug into Brocade fabrics. Cisco UCS Fibre Channel ports only operates at a maximum of 8 Gbit, and I’ve never heard a complaint regarding the lack of 16 Gbit. Especially since you can use multiple 8 Gbit uplinks to scale connectivity.

Ethernet Congestion: Drop It or Pause It

Congestion happens. You try to put a 10 pound (soy-based vegan) ham in a 5 pound bag, it just ain’t gonna work. And in the topsy-turvey world of data center switches, what do we do to mitigate congestion? Most of the time, the answer can be found in the wisdom of Snoop Dogg/Lion.


Of course, when things are fine, the world of Ethernet is live and let live.


We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

But when push comes to shove, frames get dropped. Either the buffer fills up and tail drop occurs, or QoS is configured and something like WRED (Weight Random Early Detection) kicks in to proactively drop frames before taildrop can occur (mostly to keep TCP’s behavior from causing spiky behavior).


The Bit Grim Reaper is way better than leaky buckets

Most congestion remediation methods involve one or more types of dropping frames. The various protocols running on top of Ethernet such as IP, TCP/UDP, as well as higher level protocols, were written with this lossfull nature in mind. Protocols like TCP have retransmission and flow control, and higher level protocols that employ UDP (such as voice) have other ways of dealing with the plumbing gets stopped-up. But dropping it like it’s hot isn’t the only way to handle congestion in Ethernet:


Please Hammer, Don’t PAUSE ‘Em

Ethernet has the ability to employ flow control on physical interfaces, so that when congestion is about to occur, the receiving port can signal to the sending port to stop sending for a period of time. This is referred to simply as 802.3x Ethernet flow control, or as I like to call it, old-timey flow control, as it’s been in Ethernet since about 1997. When a receive buffer is close to being full, the receiving side will send a PAUSE frame to the sending side.


Too legit to drop

A wide variety of Ethernet devices support old-timey flow control, everything from data center switches to the USB dongle for my MacBook Air.

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 6.04.06 PM

One of the drawbacks of old-timey flow control is that it pauses all traffic, regardless of any QoS considerations. This creates a condition referred to as HoL (Head of Line) blocking, and can cause higher priority (and latency sensitive) traffic to get delayed on account of lower priority traffic. To address this, a new type of flow control was created called 802.1Qbb PFC (Priority Flow Control).

PFC allows a receiving port send PAUSE frames that only affect specific CoS lanes (0 through 7). Part of the 802.1Q standard is a 3-bit field that represents the Class of Service, giving us a total of 8 classes of service, though two are traditionally reserved for control plane traffic so we have six to play with (which, by the way, is a lot simpler than the 6-bit DSCP field in IP). Utilizing PFC, some CoS values can be made lossless, while others are lossfull.

Why would you want to pause traffic instead of drop traffic when congestion occurs?

Much of the IP traffic that traverses our data centers is OK with a bit of loss. It’s expected. Any protocol will have its performance degraded if packet loss is severe, but most traffic can take a bit of loss. And it’s not like pausing traffic will magically make congestion go away.

But there is some traffic that can benefit from losslessness, and and that just flat out requires it. FCoE (Fibre Channel of Ethernet), a favorite topic of mine, requires losslessness to operate. Fibre Channel is inherently a lossless protocol (by use of B2B or Buffer to Buffer credits), since the primary payload for a FC frame is SCSI. SCSI does not handle loss very well, so FC was engineered to be lossless. As such, priority flow control is one of the (several) requirements for a switch to be able to forward FCoE frames.

iSCSI is also a protocol that can benefit from pause congestion handling rather than dropping. Instead of encapsulating SCSI into FC frames, iSCSI encapsulates SCSI into TCP segments. This means that if a TCP segment is lost, it will be retransmitted. So at first glance it would seem that iSCSI can handle loss fine.

From a performance perspective, TCP suffers mightily when a segment is lost because of TCP congestion management techniques. When a segment is lost, TCP backs off on its transmission rate (specifically the number of segments in flight without acknowledgement), and then ramps back up again. By making the iSCSI traffic lossless, packets will be slowed down during congestions but the TCP congestion algorithm wouldn’t be used. As a result, many iSCSI vendors recommend turning on old-timey flow control to keep packet loss to a minimum.

However, many switches today can’t actually do full losslessness. Take the venerable Catalyst 6500. It’s a switch that would be very common in data centers, and it is a frame murdering machine.

The problem is that while the Catalyst 6500 supports old-timey flow control (it doesn’t support PFC) on physical ports, there’s no mechanism that I’m aware of to prevent buffer overruns from one port to another inside the switch. Take the example of two ingress Gigabit Ethernet ports sending traffic to a single egress Gigabit Ethernet port. Both ingress ports are running at line rate. There’s no signaling (at least that I’m aware of, could be wrong) that would prevent the egress ports from overwhelming the transmit buffer of the ingress port.


Many frames enter, not all leave

This is like flying to Hawaii and not reserving a hotel room before you get on the plane. You could land and have no place to stay. Because there’s no way to ensure losslessness on a Catalyst 6500 (or many other types of switches from various vendors), the Catalyst 6500 is like Thunderdome. Many frames enter, not all leave.


Catalyst 6500 shown with a Sup2T

The new generation of DCB (Data Center Bridging) switches, however, use a concept known as VoQ (Virtual Output Queues). With VoQs, the ingress port will not send a frame to the egress port unless there’s room. If there isn’t room, the frame will stay in the ingress buffer until there’s room.If the ingress buffer is full, it can have signaled the sending port it’s connected to to PAUSE (either old-timey pause or PFC).

This is a technique that’s been in used in Fibre Channel switches from both Brocade and Cisco (as well as others) for a while now, and is now making its way into DCB Ethernet switches from various vendors. Cisco’s Nexus line, for example, make use of VoQs, and so do Brocade’s VCS switches. Some type of lossless ability between internal ports is required in order to be a DCB switch, since FCoE requires losslessness.

DCB switches require lossless backplanes/internal fabrics, support for PFC, ETS (Enhanced Transmission Selection, a way to reserve bandwidth on various CoS lanes), and DCBx (a way to communicate these capabilities to adjacent switches). This makes them capable of a lot of cool stuff that non-DCB switches can’t do, such as losslessness.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is when Layer 3 comes into play. My guess is that even in a DCB switch that can do Layer 3, losslessness can’t be extended beyond a Layer 2 boundary. That’s not an issue with FCoE, since it’s only Layer 2, but iSCSI can be routed.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 97 other followers