By Dave Simpson
Last week, Emulex announced its intent to acquire Vixel Corp., a manufacturer of embedded Fibre Channel switch devices. The deal is expected to be completed next month.
Formerly a player in the market for external Fibre Channel switches, Vixel refocused last year on the market for embedded switches, which can be used in disk array subsystems, network-attached storage (NAS) systems, and tape libraries that include native Fibre Channel tape drives. Emulex is the leading vendor of Fibre Channel host bus adapters (HBAs).
Vixel has announced OEM deals for its InSpeed switches with six vendors: Apple, BlueArc, Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, Network Appliance, and Xyratex. Brian Reed, Vixel's vice president of business and market development, claims the company has six more unannounced OEM design wins, some of which are rumored to be with some of the top five vendors of disk arrays.
Embedded switches (also referred to as back-end switches because they sit between disk controllers and disk drives) are an alternative to existing designs that are based on a shared-bus architecture and port bypass circuit technology. Potential advantages include faster performance (Vixel claims up to a 5x performance improvement), as well as improved reliability, availability, and serviceability. Vixel refers to the implementation of InSpeed in a disk array as a switched bunch of disks (SBODs) configuration.
Some analysts believe the market for embedded Fibre Channel switches could reach $450 million in 2007 (representing a 23% compound annual growth rate), although those projections are based on subsystem shipment estimates from Gartner and Vixel's estimates of how many of those subsystems will be based on switched architectures.
Vixel's InSpeed devices are available in ASIC, blade, or subsystem versions with up to 20 ports per device. Hewlett-Packard, for example, integrates the subsystem version of the InSpeed devices--which includes ASICs, power supplies, and fans--in its EVA disk arrays.
The InSpeed architecture could also be used with other interfaces such as Serial ATA, although Vixel has not announced plans for support beyond Fibre Channel.
"The move to embedded switches is like the move from direct-attached storage to SANs," says Mike Smith, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Emulex. "You get the same advantages, but the switch is inside the storage subsystems."
The ASICs currently operate at 2Gbps, although Vixel is working on 4Gbps implementations.
Potential competitors in the nascent market for embedded Fibre Channel switches include Emulex archrival QLogic, as well as Broadcom, which acquired intellectual property from Gadzoox Networks last year.
Emulex's all-cash acquisition of Vixel was valued at approximately $310 million, or $10 per share (a 17% premium over Vixel's stock price on the day the deal was announced). Vixel has 115 employees, about half of whom are engineers.