Setting the record straight on Emulex CNA's long game

Lack of development potential could slow QLogic hare down

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Comment Is the darn Emulex CNA chip ready or not? Competitors are saying "How come we're getting CNA design wins and Emulex is not?" What's the real Emulex CNA story here?

A CNA, a Converged Network Adaptor, runs Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) as well as Ethernet, and so converges a Fibre Channel HBA card and an Ethernet NIC onto one adaptor.

The Emulex chip hardware is real enough: Shaun Walsh, Emulex's VP for corporate communications, held it up to an audience at SNW in Frankfurt. Nice try, Shaun, but just because it's called a CNA doesn't make it a CNA.

The chip needs firmware to run FCoE and the firmware isn't ready. It will be ready by the end of the year and Emulex will announce FCoE functionality before December 31. Emulex is not forecasting any OEMs will actually endorse if by year-end, but does say it has four FCoE design wins in its back pocket that it can't talk about.

IBM is making generally supportive noises and has endorsed Emulex's brand new 16Gbit/s host bus adapter (HBA) for the p Series right out of the gate, and has also endorsed Emulex' 10gigE NIC. It has to be highly likely IBM will directly endorse Emulex' OneConect CNA chip, once the FCoE firmware is deliverable.

What does this firmware complication mean for Emulex competitor QLogic and its CNA? This is QLogic's generation 2 CNA, a single chip design that does FCoE and, we understand, is sold as such. If QLogic decided to add iSCSI (implying TCP/IP offload) and RDMA (Remote Direct Memory Access, needed for clustering) then the likelihood is that it would need new hardware, a gen 3 chip. That would take many months to develop.

Emulex also points out that, with the Netxen acquisition, QLogic would have to decide which hardware and firmware platform to use for an expansion of its server I/O offload capability; the existing 8100 product or the acquired Netxen technology.

In terms of overall CNA chip functionality, Emulex will get 10gigE NIC, iSCSI, FCoE, and RDMA functionality from one hardware design while QLogic has FCoE functionality only.

QLogic is leading in terms of deliverable FCoE functionality, but Emulex is a long way ahead in terms of potential ability to offload as much I/O processing as possible from servers onto its single hardware platform.

QLogic says it owns its own 10gigE silicon, unlike Emulex which gets it from Server Engines, and is, QLogic hints, thereby slowed down.

In business model terms, Emulex' Jeff Benck - its chief operating officer - thinks Emulex has a lead of another kind, as it sells a CNA card as a base 10gigE NIC for an MSRP of $1100. It then progressively adds functionality; $1935 for NIC + iSCSI, another uplift for FCoE, in what it calls a pay-as-you-go scheme. It characterises the QLogic CNA as bearing an FCoE tax for people who just need a 10gigE NIC.

QLogic might well say that Emulex has to have this model in order to sell any examples of the card at all, because it simply doesn't have working FCoE functionality today. Emulex says its CNA chip can also be used for RDMA, enabling lossless and low-latency data centre Ethernet to be used as a cluster interconnect.

But this is a future consideration. Once again, the hardware in the ASIC is ready but the firmware is not, meaning no RDMA functionality for now. Emulex won't even reveal a scheduled date, saying it needs to liaise carefully with server OEMs. The adoption of 10gigE as a cluster interconnect is likely to be slow and we could be looking at 2011 before the RDMA functionality is ready, possibly even further out.

Considering that data centre Ethernet and other standards needed for multi-point end-to-end FCoE won't be completed until 2010 - or possibly even 2011 - then it is very early days in FCoE adoption terms. OEMs are likely to dual-source for supply surety and price competition. FCoE-capable CNA design wins are generally not likely to be exclusive. There is still everything to play for.

The race to gather the highest number of FCoE-capable CNA design wins has only just started, with Emulex still standing by the starting gate whist QLogic is tearing off towards the first bend.

But this race is more of a marathon than a sprint and an early lead could prove either a harbinger of things to come or a chimera. We simply don't know yet. Customers should generally watch and wait and understand what they want from converged Ethernet and how they might get it. The Emulex and QLogic CNA strategies are not the same and how this pans out remains to be seen. ®

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