Lower prices top FC HBA trends

Posted on October 01, 2004



It's not often that discernable trends occur in the host bus adapter (HBA) market, but a number of factors are driving developments that will come as good news to end users, particularly those at small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) that have been hesitant to adopt SANs due to high costs and complexity.

At the top of the list are precipitous price declines, at least for low-end Fibre Channel HBAs. In some cases, HBAs cost less than 50% compared to a year ago. In fact, HBAs from market leaders Emulex and QLogic are available for less than $400 per card from some distributors. In comparison, the lowest price for single-channel HBAs about a year ago was approximately $1,000.

This trend has lead to stratification in the Fibre Channel HBA market, which now is often divided into "SMB HBAs" and "enterprise HBAs." Of course, the low-cost SMB HBAs are often "de-featured." For example, in addition to lower port counts, expect lower performance, support for a limited number of operating systems (usually just Windows and Linux), less onboard memory, fewer protocols supported, scaled-down compatibility and qualification matrices, support for shorter optical cables, etc.

In addition, SMB HBAs come with much less software functionality. For example, you may not get functions such as LUN masking, command line interfaces, path fail-over, dynamic load balancing, performance monitoring, health monitoring, sophisticated configuration management features, the ability to change the queue depth and time-out values, and other high-end features. However, vendors of these HBAs argue that most SMBs don't need that level of functionality.

The good news is that HBA vendors have simplified installation, configuration, and management in their software. In fact, some vendors claim that you can install and configure their HBAs with only a few mouse clicks.

Analysts attribute lower prices for HBAs primarily to two factors: the need for vendors to expand the overall SAN market by going after SMBs, and impending competition from low-cost IP SANs based on the iSCSI protocol.

While prices for SMB HBAs have dropped precipitously, pricing for full-feature, high-performance enterprise HBAs has dropped only slightly over the last year.

Although not as inexpensive as SMB HBAs from vendors such as Emulex and QLogic, low-end Fibre Channel HBAs are available from LSI Logic's resellers for about $500. LSI officials claim that, in contrast to "de-featured" boards, its HBAs have virtually all the same features and functions as its higher-end HBAs.

The need for speed

Another key trend in the Fibre Channel HBA market is the move to 4Gbps performance (versus the current 1Gbps and 2Gbps speeds). Most of the HBA vendors announced 4Gbps cards at this month's Storage Networking World conference (Oct. 25-28, in Orlando, FL). End users can expect 4Gbps HBAs in the first quarter of next year from some of the HBA manufacturers. Most of those vendors expect to charge a slight (5% to 10%) premium for 4Gbps cards vs. 2Gbps cards, but QLogic officials claim that their -4Gbps HBAs will be priced the same as their 2Gbps HBAs. (Of course, end-user pricing depends on the HBA vendors' channel partners.)

In addition to a 2x speed improvement, 4Gbps HBAs will enable end users to reduce the number of cards required to support heavy I/O applications. (For more information on what applications will benefit from the speed improvement, see "Who needs 4Gbps Fibre Channel?", InfoStor, July 2004, p. 10, and "What applications require higher-speed Fibre Channel?", p. 47.)

The next speed stop on the Fibre Channel road map is 8Gbps, but most vendors don't expect to ship 8Gbps HBAs until at least late 2006. And some think that -8Gbps Fibre Channel will come even later. For example, Erik Ottem, marketing director for Agilent's input/output solutions division, predicts that 8Gbps Fibre Channel products won't be widely available until the end of 2007 or later.

Although 8Gbps Fibre Channel products will be backward-compatible with previous generations, 10Gbps products will not be backward-compatible, leading to a debate in the industry over whether Fibre Channel will ever reach 10Gbps. Some vendors predict that 10Gbps Fibre Channel will be limited primarily to inter-switch links (ISLs), which are available today from QLogic on some of its Fibre Channel switches.

"10Gbps Fibre Channel won't be backward-compatible, so it may only exist as an inter-switch link, which is where it is today," says Charlie Kraus, director of LSI Logic's HBA group.

HBA standards

As for HBA standards, all of the vendors support the Storage Networking Industry Association's (SNIA's) Common HBA API standard, which simplifies HBA management. Most vendors support the Fabric Device Management Interface (FDMI) standard, which applies to all SAN components-not just HBAs. And support for SNIA's SMI-S management standard is somewhere over the horizon.

Most HBA vendors expect to support SMI-S sometime next year, but they say that the timing will depend on when vendors of disk arrays and management software support the standard. "We'll time our support of SMI-S with the availability of SMI-S-compliant software tools that will be able to take advantage of our HBAs, which we expect in late 2005," according to LSI's Kraus.

"Integrating SMI-S support into adapters is premature now," says Peter Donnelly, product manager at Atto Technology. "We'll support SMI-S on our HBAs when the market has progressed further."

Emulex, for one, claims to be compliant with SMI-S but has not yet passed SNIA's compliance test program.

A more immediate "standard" that will be of interest to users in Windows-based SAN environments is Microsoft's Storport, which provides a single driver architecture for Windows. "The most exciting standard, although it's a de facto standard and not an industry standard, is Microsoft's Storport," says Frank Berry, vice president of marketing at QLogic. "Storport will have a huge impact on the market because it will eliminate the differences between HBA software drivers in Windows environments."

For end users, the potential benefits of Storport include improved interoperability, simplified management, better performance, and the ability to take advantage of Windows Storage Server 2003 services, all of which could increase Fibre Channel vendors' chances of penetrating the SMB space. Most HBA vendors support Storport.

To PCI Express

Another feature to look for in Fibre Channel HBAs, particularly if you're running I/O-intensive applications such as video streaming, is support for the PCI Express host bus. Some HBA vendors-such as Emulex, LSI, and QLogic-currently support PCI Express, while others-such as Atto and AMCC-plan to roll out support for PCI Express almost in conjunction with support for 4Gbps Fibre Channel early next year. "Support for PCI Express will be critical when you go to dual-port 4Gbps HBAs," says Steve Vonderhaar, vice president of marketing in AMCC's storage division.

Click here to enlarge image

"PCI-X 1.0 taps out at about 800MBps bus throughput, which is fine for dual- or quad-channel 2Gbps HBAs," says LSI's Kraus, "but PCI-X doesn't have enough throughput for dual- or four-channel -4Gbps cards."

For now, most HBA vendors support PCI Express via bridge chips from Intel. Native support is expected in the latter half of next year.

Market shares/projections

The Yankee Group research and consulting firm predicts that the market for Fibre Channel HBAs will increase from $710 million this year to $904 million in 2008 (see figure, above).

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The Dell'Oro Group research firm is slightly more optimistic, predicting that Fibre Channel HBA revenues will grow at an average of 11% per year through 2008.

In terms of market shares, Emulex and QLogic retain their duopoly with a combined market share of approximately 82% based on revenues (see figure, right). Other Fibre Channel HBA vendors include Agilent, AMCC, Atto, Hewlett-Packard, and LSI.

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