Dell is rolling out solutions based on the 10-Gigabit Ethernet (10-GE) unified fabric. Let's look at why the unified fabric is such a big deal. And at how it advances the IT infrastructure.

SANs Move to Ethernet

The unified fabric is a big deal because, with the higher speeds of 10-GE and follow-ons, 40 and 100-GE, Ethernet is finally fast enough to meet the combined needs of storage area networks (SANs) and server area networks.

Unified Fabric ConvergenceYou don’t have to look far to see proof. The Fibre Channel (FC) storage community is rethinking plans for higher speeds on FC and is adopting the Ethernet physical and data link layers for FC packet transmission. Industry standards to enable FC to run over Ethernet are under development. The T11 Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard defines encapsulation of FC frames in Ethernet frames. The companion IEEE Data Center Bridging (DCB) standard defines Ethernet Layer 2 features to avoid packet loss, which FC requires. The standard also enhances Ethernet to accommodate multiple traffic types and to provide guaranteed quality of service through features such as flow control and guaranteed bandwidth.

With Ethernet as the new infrastructure for SANs, it’s clear that 10-GE is a big inflection point for consolidating traditional server and storage networks into a single unified fabric.

Unified Fabric Helps Virtualized Environments

A unified Ethernet fabric makes it much easier to move virtualized workloads around. For instance, you don’t have to think about whether a server can get to the data it needs, which may be stored on an Internet SCSI (iSCSI) or FC array. Today, if a server is not equipped with two host bus adapters (HBAs) — one for iSCSI and another for FC — it may not be able to access the data it needs.

Power SolutionsFeature Article:
10-Gigabit Ethernet: Unifying iSCSI and Fibre Channel in a Single Network Fabric

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In the converged network, a server needs only one converged network adapter (CNA) to access any data anywhere. The strategic importance of CNAs and other converged network devices is highlighted by the recent Dell/Brocade announcement. Dell is driving CNAs that support both Internet SCSI (iSCSI) and FCoE. As data centers evolve, these CNAs will become more intelligent and will provide embedded switches so that virtual machines (VMs) can communicate more efficiently with each other in a single server. 

Unified Fabric and the Efficient Enterprise

The flexibility provided by a common Ethernet network pipe brings IT infrastructure closer to the future “Efficient Enterprise” envisioned by Dell, in which scalable pools of virtualized resources — such as servers, storage and networks — are managed, provisioned and deployed dynamically to meet application and workload requirements. And because Ethernet is ubiquitous, it doesn’t matter whether the resources are located in the same data center, or are remote from one another and connected by either a private intranet or the public internet in a cloud computing model. This model is less about the underlying hardware and more about the end-user applications and services.

Helping Customers Transition to a Unified Fabric

Convergence on EthernetInitially, the primary benefit of the unified fabric is on the server end of the data center, where new Dell converged network adapters (in partnership with Brocade) will reduce server adapters and cables. With Data Center Bridging (DCB), both Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) and iSCSI can run simultaneously in these servers. When DCB support is deployed in the core network infrastructure, FCoE can extend further and eliminate the need for FC chassis switches. iSCSI does not depend on DCB, but will benefit from it. So, with iSCSI customers can move to a unified fabric architecture more quickly and gain additional benefits from DCB when they upgrade their infrastructure.

FCoE makes sense for customers who want to transition to a unified Ethernet fabric, but need support for legacy FC storage. For customers implementing SANs for the first time, iSCSI may make more sense. It is a more mature technology than FCoE, has faster performance and can be implemented now, without waiting for DCB adoption throughout the data center.

Looking Ahead

Early on, Dell saw the emergence of iSCSI as a key step toward converging data and storage networks on Ethernet. Long-term, we envisioned the convergence of Ethernet data networks, Infiniband® server area networks and FC SANs on Ethernet. iSCSI was the first step. Dell helped conceive and drive iSCSI as an IEEE standard and acquired the emerging leader in iSCSI SANs — EqualLogic — in 2007. It has also worked with partners on iSCSI implementation and pursued opportunities to enhance iSCSI solutions for virtualization and simplified management.

Dell has also driven efforts in the IEEE, Ethernet Alliance, Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) and other industry forums to establish standards for supporting workload movement with intelligent CNAs over a unified fabric.

We’ve come a long way, and there’s plenty left to do, especially on our virtualization-ready infrastructure, intelligent management of virtualized resources, and data and cloud-based computing models. There are significant opportunities for Dell to help customers navigate current and upcoming technology transitions. And unifying on Ethernet is a foundational piece.