Fibre Channel getting its second wind

New technologies such as 10G Ethernet, iSCSI and InfiniBand have generated plenty of buzz in the network storage market over the past year. But the real action of late comes from a rather unlikely source: good old Fibre Channel.

Witness this sampling of recent and upcoming Fibre Channel news:

* Cisco Systems Inc. blessed the technology by spending as much as US$2.5 billion on start-up Andiamo Systems Inc. and introducing a line of midrange and director-level Fibre Channel switches based on technology obtained in the buyout.

* Network Appliance Inc., which has made its reputation in the network-attached storage business, next month will add Fibre Channel to its mix with the addition of a storage device that handles not only file-level NAS but also block-level Fibre Channel storage-area network (SAN) data.

* New protocols for blending Fibre Channel and IP are nearing standards status within the Internet Engineering Task Force.

* Previously limited to 1G bit/sec, Fibre Channel products now handle 2G bit/sec throughput, and 10G bit/sec Fibre Channel is in the works.

The technology, which emerged in 1989, took years to catch on as a method for connecting server and storage resources in data centers and in SANs. Critics pointed to interoperability problems, distance limitations, cost and a shortage of experienced Fibre Channel experts in IT departments.

Yet Fibre Channel has won converts because the technology's speed and distance support has fared well against that of SCSI and other storage network technologies. Gartner says Fibre Channel was nearly a $1.5 billion business last year and likely will quadruple in size by 2006. And The Yankee Group says as many as 37 percent of organizations have SANs installed, with that figure expected to increase to 50 percent by year-end.

"Fibre Channel has proven itself to be worthy of the data center, and it works just fine," says Tony Prigmore, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group Inc. "We are past the queasiness phase of Fibre Channel - it has stabilized, and its interoperability is pretty good."

Prigmore adds that Cisco's increased support for Fibre Channel also is a boost for the technology in light of the emergence of 10G Ethernet and other storage network options.

"When the 10G bit/sec Ethernet vs. Fibre Channel questions come up, you have to look at Cisco," he says. "Shouldn't they be leading us into 10G bit/sec as the storage interconnect? But it sure looks as if they believe Fibre Channel is the accepted data center interconnect."

Christopher Black, network operations manager for Effron, an investment and portfolio management company in White Plains, N.Y., is a Fibre Channel believer. He uses Fibre Channel-based Clariion storage arrays from EMC Corp., Brocade Communications Systems Inc. 2G bit/sec Fibre Channel switches and CNT UltraNet Edge Storage Routers in his data center to mirror SQL data from one array to another across a 35-mile IP span.

"We wanted to maximize our throughput to the disk, so Fibre Channel was the obvious choice - it was faster and better technology than SCSI," Black says. "We also wanted to be able to cut up the storage array and assign it to servers where and when we needed. Fibre Channel is the best way to do that."

Fibre Channel's next act

The good news for Fibre Channel users is that the industry appears committed to advancing the technology.

Cisco's Andiamo deal and Network Appliance's planned product announcement are signs of that commitment. What's more, the arrival of these companies on the Fibre Channel scene could drive down Fibre Channel pricing.

Cisco is expected to be so aggressive on pricing that an analyst from brokerage firm U.S. BanCorp Piper Jaffrey Inc. recently issued a research note in which he said Cisco's pricing strategy could "negatively impact Brocade's financial performance."

Brocade leads the market for Fibre Channel switching, with a 34 percent share, Gartner says.

According to Dragon Slayer Consulting, which tracks the storage market, the current price per director-level Fibre Channel switch port is $3,100, but is expected to fall to about $1,750 by year-end.

Fibre Channel users also can look forward to new products that will let them get more out of their SANs by extending them across greater distances.

Two new technologies, Fibre Channel over IP (FC/IP) and Internet Fibre Channel Protocol (iFCP), are designed to transport Fibre Channel traffic across IP networks, including the Internet.

Both technologies appear to be on their way to becoming IETF standards - increasing the likelihood of them becoming supported in products from mainstream network storage vendors.

Prestandard implementations of FC/IP are available from companies such as CNT and EMC, while products supporting iFCP are available from vendors such as Nishan Systems Inc.

Further, products based on these emerging standards will be integrated with products from companies such as InRange Technologies Corp. and Sicorp that extend the distance of Fibre Channel links.

Another bright spot for Fibre Channel customers is that product vendors are starting to swap APIs that can be used to support multivendor management. EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. are among the companies that have been involved in such exchanges. A new specification called Bluefin also is on the table for managing SANs based on different vendors' products.

Effron's Black says managing a multivendor SAN from the same interface makes a lot of sense. "EMC isn't afraid with their AutoIS platform to manage not only their product, but other vendors' products," he says.

Obstacles exist

Despite all the progress, Fibre Channel still has its challenges.

"There are management and staffing issues," says Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst at The Yankee Group. "I hear people say they don't have enough staff [that knows Fibre Channel well enough] to build out SANs."

Observers say that while technologies such as FC/IP and iFCP are being worked on, even they don't solve all the latency and data-rate error problems that SAN traffic is prone to when traveling long distances.

And then there's the confusion that new technologies such as InfiniBand and iSCSI are generating. Are they complementary or competing technologies to Fibre Channel?

Prigmore says there is room for them all to coexist. InfiniBand is more for clustering servers, not so much for transporting data between servers and storage devices, he says.

And iSCSI is better-suited for small or midsize companies or branch offices within large companies than the more expensive Fibre Channel is, he adds.

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