Fibre channel on the rise, IBM joins in

Fibre Channel appears set to be a significant technology offering this year, with costs coming down, and greater product availability.

"Almost all of storage shipped last year was SCSI-based. However, 2000 or 2001 will roughly be the crossover year, where revenues from Fibre Channel-based storage will exceed that of SCSI," said Graham Penn, manager of International Data's (IDC) Asia-Pacific storage program.

However, concerns about interoperability and product maturity meant that Fibre Channel had a slow start. An IDC report pegs Fibre Channel revenue at 4US6 billion to $8 billion in 2001 -- lower than the $8.85 billion predicted earlier.

A dramatic fall in the prices of storage hardware, and the closing gap between the price of Fibre Channel and SCSI storage products has spurred Fibre Channel adoption.

"Vendors like Clariion are pushing this trend, having committed to only Fibre Channel products," commented Penn.

A key driver this year for the take-up of Fibre Channel technology is the introduction of storage area network (SAN) products.

A SAN connects servers and clients to a pool of shared storage. It comprises servers, external storage, networking devices and a high-speed interface such as Fibre Channel.

"I think 1999 is the year where SAN will take off, as the second generation switches for SANs will be available this year, as well as the software that will manage the security aspect of SAN on switches," said Robert Choo, general manager of Asia South for Clariion.

A significant number of vendors, like Dell, EMC, Veritas, Legato, and StorageTek have announced their Fibre Channel offerings, the latest of which is IBM.

Prodigal Technology

Although IBM invented Fibre Channel , during the past few years the company has championed another high-bandwidth storage interface called Serial Storage Architecture (SSA).

Now, IBM is welcoming Fibre Channel back into its enterprise fold with the recent announcement of a Fibre Channel -based SAN initiative.

"This will help to accelerate the adoption of Fibre Channel, as IBM moves towards a more heterogeneous offering" noted IDC's Penn.

SSA and Fibre Channel both offer improvements over traditional SCSI in bandwidth and connection distance.

Fibre Channel today is a bit faster than SSA, but SSA is less expensive, and it can handle multiple I/O operations in parallel.

Devices on a Fibre Channel loop must negotiate among themselves for access.

"Fibre Channel is becoming the de facto standard, so even though IBM might believe SSA is superior, it would be hard to ignore (Fibre Channel)," said John McArthur, an analyst at IDC.

The recent IBM SAN announcement included a souped-up version of a Fibre Channel RAID array introduced last year and a new SCSI-to-Fibre bridge.

The upgraded RAID array can house between 18G bytes and 1T byte of data and was designed to support single-platform server clustering.

The original version supported only IBM Netfinity servers, but the upgrade can attach to dual Windows NT servers or multiple Unix servers from IBM, Hewlett-Packard or Sun Microsystems.

The new IBM Storage Area Network Data Gateway can connect SCSI-attached disk and tape -- such as IBM's Versatile Storage Server or its Magstar tape libraries -- to select Fibre Channel-enabled Unix and NT servers.

"IBM remains committed to our SSA disk technology. It is a key building block of our Seascape blueprint and family of integrated storage solutions. We will continue to sell and support SSA, said Raymond Chan, marketing manager, RS/6000 and Storage Systems, IBM ASEAN/South Asia.

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