Where Is Microsoft’s FCoE Support?

FCoE is taking enterprise storage by storm, but where is Microsoft?

Microsoft is a controversial company, generating a mix of criticism and praise everywhere they are involved. Although I’m definitely a Microsoft skeptic, I’ve been pleased by much of the work they have done in my field of enterprise storage. Their client-side (“initiator” to us storage folks) work has been especially notable, making me wonder why no other operating system vendor has as diverse and full-featured storage support as Microsoft. I would go so far as saying that the iSCSI SAN revolution would not have happened if not for the folks up in Redmond.

Enterprise storage is in the midst of another shift these days. iSCSI moved low-end and midrange servers to SANs by leveraging Ethernet for connectivity. Now, the storage and networking industry is pushing to do the same for high-end Fibre Channel SANs, bringing Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) to life before our eyes. Although users are not yet on board, the dominance of FCoE seems almost certain to many industry watchers.

Where Is Microsoft?

But where is Microsoft when it comes to FCoE? I see no public statements of support for the protocol. I see no participation in FCoE standards-setting (though the company did recently join the FCIA as an “Observer”). Most importantly, I see no software features developing solid enterprise support for FCoE within the Windows operating system. Put simply, Microsoft does not seem to be participating in FCoE development, either on the initiator or target side.

Some may say Microsoft doesn’t need to get involved. After all, most FCoE integration will rely on third-party hardware and drivers that appear to be standard Fibre Channel HBAs to Windows. But this argument is spurious: Microsoft never got very involved in Fibre Channel either, and the confusing state of third-party FC SAN connectivity in Windows is a stark contrast to the solid and reliable iSCSI initiator. The fact that Microsoft embraced iSCSI while allowing third parties to “own” FC is an indictment of their stance towards FCoE.

Then there is Microsoft’s FCoE  logo program. In March, I was pleased to note that Microsoft would at least add FCoE to their Windows Logo program. Yet there has been no sign of the Logo Kit, promised for December, and just one mention of this program in the last year: Microsoft delayed enforcement of FCoE Logos until December of 2010. As far as an outside observer would know, Microsoft hasn’t moved forward with even the most basic FCoE support, a Logo program, in a year.

I am not suggesting that Microsoft must develop software FCoE targets. In fact, a Microsoft FCoE target might prove to be counter-productive, discouraging storage vendors from competing. A software initiator would be welcome, but the high-end target audience makes this less critical than for iSCSI. Instead, Microsoft should begin to develop a converged I/O framework around the DCB standards, including a detailed FC and FCoE integration architecture for third-party hardware and software.

Unacceptable

The current state of affairs is simply unacceptable. Consider the systems using FCoE: Many criticize Microsoft’s presence in the data center at all, but no one can deny their power there. Microsoft Windows Server powers most enterprise compute tasks today, running on almost three quarters of data center servers. Windows Server will almost certainly be the leading user of Fibre Channel over Ethernet connectivity.

On the other side of the equation, storage and networking vendors from EMC and NetApp to Cisco and Emulex are pushing hard for the FCoE transition. Regardless of end user indifference, FCoE will dominate SAN deployments in the next few years. It’s a question of “when” not “if”  - DCB and FCoE will take the data center by storm.

Certainly, Microsoft can simply allow the FCoE ship to sail without them on board. They can allow third-party HBA/CNA, server, and networking vendors to bring FCoE support to Windows. But this represents a massive missed opportunity for the company and a capitulation in the high end of the enterprise market. Microsoft must immediately move to take leadership in FCoE: Add corporate resources, step up standards efforts, publish the Logo Kit, and develop a framework of support.

Disclaimer: I am a Microsoft MVP in the area of storage. Their kind treatment of me obviously didn’t color my perception of them with regards to FCoE. I also have an NDA with Microsoft, and they have briefed me on future Windows Server and storage developments. Nothing in this post should be construed to reveal the company’s future plans.