Whos Catching the Fibre Channel Wave?

Posted on May 01, 1998

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Who`s Catching the Fibre Channel Wave?

Early adopters such as Home Depot and the Kansas City Chiefs are taking advantage of the benefits of Fibre Channel in innovative applications.

By John Haystead

While Fibre Channel may still be future-generation technology for some users, others are putting the high-speed storage/networking interface to work today. From simple disk arrays to multi-site configurations and storage area networks, Fibre Channel technology has clearly left its cozy test beds and reported for duty on the production floor.

Users of audio/video shared-storage applications are early adopters of Fibre Channel technology, but other applications are also beginning to gain ground. While most early adopters can point to one or two stumbling blocks along the way to Fibre Channel deployment, they believe these obstacles have been largely mitigated by the immediate performance advantages. And, these same users are now poised to take advantage of their hands-on experience, confidently preparing to move on to the next round of Fibre Channel products.

Like many new technologies, Fibre Channel is not making its first inroads in mainstream applications but, rather, in new, innovative, and more flexible applications. A prime example is the Kansas City Chiefs football team, which is using a Fibre Channel video editing system as one of its game preparation tools.

The National Football League has a mandatory film-exchange program, requiring teams to swap recordings of all their games. The league previously used 16mm film, but today each team receives Betacam videotapes. Until the new digital system was installed, all of the editing and sorting of tapes was done manually, which, according to John Wuehrmann, the Chiefs` director of video operations, "was a tedious, time-consuming process requiring anywhere from 7 to 10 hours just to generate final material for the coaches." The new digital system and Fibre Channel network now allows all of the video to be edited, stored, and accessed digitally.

Designed by Avid Sports, in Lowell, MA, the Chiefs` Fibre Channel system consists of a series of Macintosh-based "SportsPro" editing stations along with a number of "SportsView" viewing stations (which also have editing capability). The stations are linked together via a Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL) hub from Gadzoox Networks. Currently, the team has six stations on the network, and they are planning to expand the network to ten units.

Gridiron Gigabytes

The process begins at the editors` stations, where each tape is digitized and loaded onto Seagate Fibre Channel drives in a Clariion FC5000 disk array. The array supports up to 10 drives (91GB total) in each 3.5U enclosure and up to 110 drives in a 39U cabinet. In total, the Chiefs` system can store 360GB of data, which translates into roughly 40 hours of video. Plans call for increasing the storage capacity by 180GB to give users additional online access. The disk array is currently in a JBOD (just a bunch of disks) configuration, but Avid and the Chiefs are in the process of converting to a RAID configuration.

Each play is identified and categorized by attaching various attributes to each segment of tape. The data and video information is then compiled and integrated to generate tendency-analysis profiles, such as the frequency or likelihood of third-down passing, short-yardage formations, blitzes, etc. All of this information is then made available to the coaches` stations where they can further manipulate the data and video to build teaching tools for the team.

Working as a development partner on the system with Avid, the Chiefs were early adopters of Fibre Channel. For the Chiefs, the appeal of Fibre Channel was part and parcel of the overall capability offered by the Avid system. "The system provided us with a capability that was not available in the past," says Wuehrmann, "and although we recognized the benefits of moving our process into the digital world, the fact that it was a Fibre Channel-based system was more or less transparent to us."

Although the system was in development at Avid since 1994, the Chiefs` network wasn`t actually installed until June of 1997. "As a result," says Wuehrmann, "we were aware of most of the system`s limitations going in and didn`t encounter any major new technology limitations as we went along."

There were some technical glitches along the way, however. For example, since the network runs on an arbitrated loop, as opposed to a switched network, any break in the loop, such as that caused by one of the coaches turning a computer off, caused the entire system to lock up. "These events could take us a half-hour to correct," recalls Wuehrmann, "while we shut down and rebooted widely separated computers on the loop." Once the problem was recognized, however, Wuehrmann says it was fairly straightforward to deal with by simply enlisting the cooperation of users. Still, the Chiefs ultimately plan to deal with the issue by moving to a switched Fibre Channel network.

Bob Simmons, Avid Sports` vice president of sales and marketing, agrees that the transition to a switched network is a good move because "it will allow them to more easily isolate problems." Avid is currently evaluating Vixel Corp.`s Rapport 4000 8-port Fibre Channel switch.

There were also occasional software issues, but "nothing out of the ordinary for a new system," according to Wuehrmann, who adds that the glitches were quickly addressed via updates and fixes. Wuehrmann describes Avid Sports and its partner Clariion as "very conservative and realistic" about their release of products. "They`re not vaporware companies, and for most of our problems, the solutions were already in the works at the time we began implementing the system," he says.

Costs were also pretty much as expected. "The digital workstation costs were similar to those of a Beta-tape editing unit, and although we always hope for the lowest possible networking costs, we didn`t consider these unreasonable or excessive," says Wuehrmann. Even so, like many IS managers, he found that until he could demonstrate the benefits that would be passed along to the end users, the system was a tough sell.

Though Wuehrmann acknowledges that measuring the actual return on investment is intangible and subjective, he notes that the feedback from the coaches is very positive. This may be a bit of an understatement compared with the words of Chiefs defensive coordinator, Gunther Cunningham, "Next to the players on the field, this system is the most important thing we`ve done for the team." The Chiefs have successfully completed an entire season with the system and are currently using it in off-season preparation.

Do-it-yourself Television

Home Depot is another company that`s taking advantage of Fibre Channel in an innovative application. The Home Depot Video Department produces roughly 300 projects per year for presentation at the company`s chain of 640 home-improvement supply stores worldwide. Known as Home Depot Television (HDTV), the department produces both videotaped and live shows for its employees and managers, covering new employee orientation and training, store openings, human-resource information, new products, etc.

Although about 70% of their productions are delivered via VHS tape, a compressed-video digital downlink from GE Spacenet is also installed in each store for live broadcasts. Around 24 live shows are transmitted per year, presenting financial information, corporate messages, promotion opportunities, and incorporating live call-in for direct feedback and Q&A.

As described by Bruce Covey, HDTV chief engineer, the graphics-intensive productions require extensive video editing, which is what brought them to Fibre Channel. For the first eight years of HDTV, the department was a completely linear-based editing facility using traditional editing suites and editors with very limited computer-graphics capability. As Covey recalls, "We were working up to 18 hours a day and still maxing out at about 200 projects per year. We needed something that would supercharge our operation."

Provided by Digital Solutions Inc., a systems integrator in Atlanta, the Home Depot production system includes three Avid Technology Media Composer 8000 editing stations and an Avid Xpress digitizing unit. The units are linked via Transoft Technology`s StudioBoss software and an Emulex nine-port Fibre Channel hub to Transoft`s ProTower RAID drive array. The array is based on a QLogics controller, and holds 40 9GB Seagate Fibre Channel drives, with each group of ten controlled by its own Pentium controller as a node on the hub. In total the tower provides 360GB of online storage, with 20% dedicated to parity.

Graphics are generated on a Silicon Graphics Indigo II system that is tied into the server via a differential SCSI connection and a 9GB drive partition. According to Covey, this approach was taken because the graphics I/O slots in the SGI machine didn`t allow the option of a Fibre Channel card. "It wasn`t an issue, however, since we don`t do video editing on the Indigo."

All of the CPUs reside in one control room, linked to monitors, keyboards, and mice via remote boxes. This allows the 1Gbps FC-AL loop to run on copper rather than fiber cabling, which was a key cost-saving feature. Says Covey. "Since the computers are co-located in the equipment room directly beside the server, fiber cabling wasn`t necessary." According to Covey, the Fibre Channel system provides enough bandwidth and capacity to run all four machines simultaneously at AVR 77 (Avid`s highest-resolution spec at a 2:1 compression ratio) without network bottlenecks.

Like other early adopters, Home Depot wasn`t specifically looking for Fibre Channel when they decided to upgrade their system. They found, however, that it ultimately provided the best solution for their requirements. Says Covey, "We knew we wanted to go to a server-based editing system, and Fibre Channel provided the speed and bandwidth we needed." According to Covey, Fibre Channel stood out as the technology of choice for sharing content simultaneously over a network without getting bogged down. "If we were only doing offline work, Fibre Channel might not have been required, but for high-speed file transfer, we absolutely needed an adequate server and network to handle the load."

Digital Solutions` president, David McBrayer, sees more and more video users coming to this same conclusion. "Now that the price of Fibre Channel drives is comparable with Fast/Wide SCSI, whenever you have multiple video or audio editing stations, it only makes sense to go to Fibre Channel so that all the suites can simultaneously access all the drives."

With what he describes as a "decent budget," Covey says that Home Depot and Digital Solutions shopped around for some time before making a decision, including evaluating a number of high-end solutions. "As we looked at different vendors, it turned out that support for Fibre Channel was a key factor," says Covey. Although one vendor offered a Serial Storage Architecture (SSA) network solution, Covey says it was "really more of a peer-to-peer than a central-server system, requiring material to be duplicated between editing stations." Another high-end, non-Fibre Channel system was also considered, but since it was "nearly three times the cost for less total storage," Covey says they concluded "the best solution at a reasonable price was the Avid system married with Transoft`s Fibre Channel system."

During the implementation phase, Covey says they didn`t experience many hurdles directly related to Fibre Channel because the system was fully certified and tested by Transoft before installation. Home Depot`s system also has a bridge into an Ethernet network and, according to Covey, "the Ethernet installation posed far more problems than anything related to Fibre Channel."

Like Wuehrmann`s experience at the Chiefs, however, FC-AL presented some operational issues. "Because we`re using an arbitrated loop configuration, when you go to reboot and the Transoft StudioBOSS control software launches on the loop, there`s a momentary glitch." Covey says this initially caused a few headaches, but that it was relatively easily solved by advising all users that someone was rebooting, and that they should briefly pause their activities. Like the Chiefs, however, Home Depot plans to convert to a switched Fibre Channel network. The department is also considering upgrading some of its 9GBdrives to 18GBunits as they become available.

Rocky Mountain High Performance

In addition to capturing and producing the work of a number of recording artists, Rocky Mountain Recorders Inc., a studio in Denver, will be using a new Fibre Channel-based storage system to record, mix, and edit the audio tracks of films, videos, and television commercials. The new system will be composed of four Digidesign ProTools 24 digital recording/mixing client stations linked to an eight-drive disk array via a Gadzoox nine-port Fibre Channel arbitrated loop hub provided by Rorke Data, a systems integrator in Minneapolis. Rorke also provided the Fibre Channel controller cards and volume management software.

The first phase of the studio`s new system was installed in March. The RAID array will be augmented with an additional 8-drive bay of 18GB Seagate Cheetah drives when they become available. Although project sizes vary dramatically, one recent CD recording of 11 songs required around 10GB of magnetic storage.

According to Rocky Mountain`s president, Gannon Kashiwa, in addition to centralized backup and restore, the principle goal of the project is to provide ease of exchange between workgroups in the multi-room facility. The company currently has four studios with plans to add another in the near future. Sessions typically start in one room, with post-production work continuing in another room. "Getting the media from room to room has always been a chore. We`ve tried removable drives, Fast Ethernet, etc., but none of these approaches proved very efficient," says Kashiwa.

Distance considerations first brought Fibre Channel into the picture. Kashiwa initially looked at a differential SCSI-based system, but because one of his rooms was 30 meters away, it pushed the distance limitations of differential SCSI. "Although we estimate Fibre Channel is probably 20% more expensive, when we looked at the amount of throughput and cable distance we would ultimately need, Fibre Channel was the better long-term solution."

Although audio and video storage requirements are often discussed in one breath, in reality audio storage poses distinctly different challenges. For example, says Kashiwa, "As opposed to video applications, where you have one big chunk of data, with our application the challenge for our drives is keeping up with multiple data streams." Because of this, Rocky Mountain will not be striping its data into a RAID array, but will target projects to individual drives. "We anticipate we`ll be getting a transfer rate of 20MBps, but our main concern is seek time. For example, the largest system in our network will be 64 tracks, which is 64 individual streams, and accessing this data from a RAID array would be less efficient and slower than from a single drive."

Overall, Kashiwa is confident that the implementation will go smoothly, pointing out that Rorke Data has a test setup at their facility using four ProTools 24s. Still, he is not without worries. "I have a rough idea of how I want to grant permissions from room to room based on the drives, but I haven`t actually seen the software, so I don`t know how all these drives will appear to the different stations and how we will administrate the network."

Although the system has the capability to accommodate a switched network, Kashiwa doesn`t anticipate this need. Bob Herzan, Rorke Data`s vice president of worldwide sales, agrees, pointing out that the decision to provide a non-intelligent hub, intelligent hub, or a fabric switch generally depends on the size of the operation or application. "The main problem that has developed with arbitrated loops in workgroups is caused by the crashing or powering down of one of the systems on the loop, which in small workgroups may be acceptable, but it can be very detrimental in larger groups of 8 to 10 systems." In addition to switched networks, Herzan points out that this can often be addressed with changes in the way adapter cards communicate during power down.

Salem`s Lots

The Essex County, Massachusetts, Registry of Deeds, in Salem, maintains the oldest continuous land records in the United States. Dating back to the year 1639, the registry has close to 15 million land-deed documents on file.

A new Fiber Channel-based storage-and-retrieval system is now making a portion of these documents readily available for both internal office access and to the public via the registry`s web site (www.salemdeeds.com). Generating roughly 400,000 pages per year, the system is being used to index and store images of each document.

At the Registry, a Unisys PrimeStor NAS 2000 network-attached storage system combines in a single rackmount enclosure two redundant Windows NT servers in a two-node cluster with a dual-loop Fibre Channel storage subsystem. Eight 9GB dual-port Fibre Channel drives are housed in each enclosure, with dynamic RAID protection integrated in the system`s NT software.

The two NT servers are used to manage the input and retrieval of documents. One server handles the internal document processing while the second is dedicated to the Registry`s Web site. An external Ethernet network is linked to the Fibre Channel system for data input.

Currently, the registry is using 290GB of storage, but it expects to hit a full terabyte by the end of the year. For the registry to convert and store its entire document library would require from 4TB to 6TB of storage space.

According to Mike Miles, assistant register of deeds, Fibre Channel was a key factor in their selection of the Unisys NAS 2000 system. "Until Fibre Channel, a technology solution for our requirement just wasn`t available." With the goal being to provide rapid access to the public via the Internet, the basic underlying requirement was speed. With each document image averaging around 50KB, Miles says optical storage could not provide the required throughput. "With Fibre Channel, we were able to attain those access speeds."

Ultimately, as explained by John O`Brien, Register of Deeds, because most people doing title-search work need to research back 50 years, the goal is to upload that much information onto the Web site. "The system will allow us to provide this service 24 hours a day free of charge to the public."

Non-pending Patents

Patentec Inc., in Alexandria, VA, currently maintains information on a collection of roughly 2 million U.S. patents, which they provide to patent law firms and other service firms. The company currently has about 1 million patents stored in a terrabyte of magnetic drive storage and expects to double that volume by the end of the year.

The RAID storage system is composed of 120 9GB Seagate Fibre Channel drives housed in 15 Trimm Technologies eight-drive racks mounted in a single cabinet. The FC-AL topology is controlled by a single 266MHz Pentium II PC with a Fibre Channel adapter card.

Prior to converting to the Fibre Channel system, Patentec was using CD-ROM storage, with a small portion of their library on a SCSI-based disk subsystem. According to Patentec`s director, Ken Gural, in addition to speed considerations, the main driver behind their move to Fibre Channel was the number of devices it allowed them to put on a single loop. "With SCSI, this was limited to either 16 or 32, and would have required many more controller cards to manage the array," says Gural. As for price/performance, Gural says they didn`t find the cost differences between SCSI and Fibre Channel to be significant. "The rack units were more expensive, but the performance benefits outweighed the cost."

Patentec received its first Fibre Channel enclosure from Trimm Technologies in June of last year and immediately began the conversion process.

As a very early adopter, Gural recalls they had to base a lot of their decision to go with Fibre Channel on faith. "Since we began ordering Fibre Channel before the hardware was actually available, a lot of what we got was still at the beta stage. As a result, even basic components like connectors and cabling were often hard to come by." Now, Gural says these problems are going away with more suppliers offering Fibre Channel hardware.

In particular, Gural says there were a number of compatibility issues with his first controller cards. "We started out with beta versions of controller cards from both Adaptec and QLogic, and each had compatibility issues early on." With the incorporation of new drivers, however, Gural says these have now been largely resolved. "We`re still using both companies` controller cards, and they now seem to work pretty well."

Still, Gural says they haven`t yet reached the speeds they had hoped for. The reason, however, is not attributable to Fibre Channel, he says, but rather to their PC controller and the NT operating system. Although the Fibre Channel racks are dual-ported, they are currently using only one host controller. "This appears to be the cause of the bottleneck, and with multiple host initiators we hope to be able to reach the full FC-AL speeds. Right now, however, NT 4.0 doesn`t seem like it can handle it."

In Gural`s experience, "Using NT as a RAID controller for a system as large as this has problems." As an example, he points out that if a data transfer is unsuccessful for any reason, the system will indicate that the file structure is corrupted. "With such a large number of drives striped together, cleaning this up is a very difficult task."

Gural says another early operating system issue involved a lack of troubleshooting support. In one case, for example, although a particular drive tested fine individually, it began to have problems in the RAID array. "It was very difficult to both determine that the problem was with a drive and then to isolate which drive was causing the problem." Although they haven`t evaluated it yet, Patentec has also obtained a beta version of NT 5.0, which Gural believes may address some of his problems. Overall, Gural describes his system as "basically working well, although it needs to be babied somewhat."

These early adopters represent the first wave in the eventual migration from older interfaces such as SCSI to the emerging Fibre Channel network/storage interface. International Data Corp., a market research firm in Framingham, MA, predicts that, by the end of the year 2000, half of all external storage will be connected via the Fibre Channel interface.

This year, IDC estimates that the market for Fibre Channel devices will be about $200 million. That compares with a $4.5 billion market for SCSI devices. But, in the year 2000, the market for Fibre Channel is expected to approach $8 billion, while the SCSI market drops to $3 billion.

Click here to enlarge image

Home Depot`s video application uses a nine-port Fibre Channel hub to link editing stations and a digitizing unit.

John Haystead is a freelance writer in Hollis, NH.


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