The Future of Fibre Channel technology

Posted on August 01, 1999


The Future of Fibre Channel technology

Technology improvements will result in significant IT business benefits.

Bruce B. Biggs

Tom Houston

As Fibre Channel technology evolves, its benefits are becoming more numerous. Today, Fibre Channel allows for better data storage techniques and faster transfer rates. Future advancements will improve storage area networks (SANs)--and associated software management capabilities--as well as enable organizations to more efficiently manage data repositories and application sharing, while lowering the total cost of ownership (TCO) of storage assets and related processes.

With such promise, Fibre Channel is beginning to penetrate the enterprise. Corporations are starting to rely on Fibre Channel technology for fast and reliable data acquisition, backup, and storage. Fibre Channel is a reliable and effective solution for multi-terabyte enterprises supporting both data- and communications-intensive applications and is an attractive alternative to Gigabit Ethernet and SCSI.

In fact, Fibre Channel was specifically designed to remove the performance barriers of existing LANs and storage channels. Gigabit Ethernet is designed to enable a common frame from the desktop to the backbone. In contrast, Fibre Channel is designed to be a transport service that is protocol-independent. ATM was designed for wide area networks and provides quality of service for fractional bandwidth service. Fibre Channel can be used in both networks and storage and provides a price savings due to economies of scale associated with larger volumes.

As an industry-standard interface adopted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Fibre Channel was originally designed to support fiber-optic cabling. (When copper support was added, the International Standards Organization (ISO) renamed the technology, changing the spelling from fiber to fibre.) It was used as a high-speed interface between workstations, supercomputers, mainframes, and locally attached peripherals, transporting large volumes of data at very fast speeds (up to 4.24 Gbps). However, the distance between devices in a Fibre Channel configuration adversely affects possible data rates.

Fibre Channel represents a significant change in the way storage is purchased, implemented, and managed. It is usually thought of as a system-to-system or system-to-subsystem interconnection architecture that uses optical cable between systems in a switched or point-to-point configuration. Fibre Channel is the facilitating technology that lets users connect multiple storage devices to multiple servers in a network configuration, independent of the traditional data communication network.

This high-speed serial interface can be implemented in either a point-to-point, arbitrated loop, active hub, or switched configuration. Fibre Channel offers significant advantages over traditional SCSI connections in terms of dis- tance, flexibility, connectivity, and performance. Current implementations of Fibre Channel rely primarily on shared-medium connections.

Fibre Channel products include integrated circuits, host bus adapters, storage arrays, managed FC-AL hubs, Fibre Channel-SCSI multiplexers, and switches.

Who`s using it?

Ultimately, Fibre Channel will allow users to have access to a pool of storage that is connected to decentralized servers without the distance limitations of SCSI. Today, Fibre Channel is being used in many ways, including:

•UCLA Medical Center: Fibre Channel switches connect Unix servers to different disk subsystems containing x-ray image files. Benefit: reduced access times from 90 seconds to 8 seconds.

•Amoco Corp.: Fibre Channel network improves geologists` access to seismic data models, enabling faster turnaround in locating petroleum deposits. Goal: to get oil to market ahead of their competitors.

•Hawaiian project: Fibre Channel switches and adapters are the communication backbone for a telescope being developed in Japan for the island of Hawaii. The telescope, which will be the world`s largest single-dish optical-infrared telescope, will capture and send digital astronomical images to a data server 45 miles away. Massive file size, file transfer demands, and bandwidth-intensive applications made Fibre Channel a natural choice for this project. When operational, the telescope will generate several hundred megabytes to more than 10GB of data each night.

To remain competitive, IT organizations should consider migrating back-end storage systems to an enterprise-wide Fibre Channel framework. Doing so can reduce operating costs; improve business effectiveness; and increase staff productivity, IT asset TCO, competitiveness, and ROI. To that end, organizations should have a systematic change management plan, which includes:

•Fibre Channel business consulting expertise

•Knowledge of the current Fibre Channel market, future trends, and vendor product strategies

•Competent Internet and Fibre Channel engineering expertise (including security, telecom, etc.)

•Systems engineering and integration capabilities

•Enterprise-wide Fibre Channel framework integration expertise

The Fibre Channel industry is technology driven, with short release cycles and increasing product complexity. Consequently, to execute a successful Fibre Channel business strategy, a company must also develop expertise in the following areas:

•Leading products: develop key partnerships with best-of-breed Fibre Channel vendors

•Key technologies: security, middleware, VPN, encryption, knowledge management, web architectures, intranets and extranets, legacy connectivity and data mapping, access controls, and interoperability across all platforms

•Key skills: systems engineering, requirements analysis, security, analysis, and information engineering

The effect of Internet technologies

Advanced Internet technologies will significantly affect Fibre Channel systems. They will provide greater flexibility and more accurate control of business information storage and usage. Consumers and businesses that use Fibre Channel systems will demand efficient and fast searches through the hundreds and thousands of terabytes of information that will be accessible for future collaboration on the Internet. This will drive the need for intelligent agents, softbots, and webcrawlers.

Future Fibre Channel applications will require workflow management and information access, filtering, and brokering. To accomplish many of the mundane--yet complex tasks currently performed by a mix of system operators and software, sophisticated software agents will be needed.

Most companies` business information streams need radical renovation because the streams are fragmented across different departments, functions, and lines of business. Fibre Channel technologies can segregate and synthesize a company`s information streams into processes of collection, storage, and management.

Future Fibre Channel technology breakthroughs will bring together high performance, easy-to-use, low-cost data communications needed for storage and backup applications.

These breakthroughs will offer benefits such as more efficient IS operations, reduced TCO, improved service and data access for users, and better alignment of the IT infrastructure with an organization`s business objectives.

Fibre Channel frameworks can help with technology refresh initiatives, improved user support, quicker access times, and IT asset management capabilities. Improved software integration and management, continuous infrastructure modernization, and consistent data access, storage, and management support can provide a structured framework in which to develop a mature SAN infrastructure and related processes.

The implementation of a Fibre Channel framework provides IS resource and infrastructure management, enterprise-level information storage TCO analysis, asset management, and improved configuration control of all IT assets.

A Fibre Channel framework also makes future open-systems hardware and software integration possible and provides easy system upgrades, real-time enterprise metrics monitoring, software inventory reconciliation, and SAN management--not to mention user support.

In the future, Fibre Channel framework products will provide organizations with integrated, scalable asset management systems rather than a conglomerate of disparate point products, which may or may not work together.

Future improvements

The future of Fibre Channel technology rests on its ability to provide much-needed functionality to support high-performance networks. This functionality includes multi-vendor-host switch logon capabilities; process migration from central hosts onto Fibre Channel switches; and switch management. Four specific areas of Fibre Channel technology that will be improved in the future are management software, logon capabilities, protocol processing, and host bus adapters.

For example, Fibre Channel fiber-optic media currently supports almost 5Gbps of data throughput. However, Fibre Channel host bus adapters currently do not come close to supporting the bandwidth capability of the optical cabling. This limitation prevents Fibre Channel from being a viable alternative to SCSI adapters. SCSI currently supports data rates similar to Fibre Channel rates, but at a lower cost. Future Fibre Channel host adapters will support 4.24Gbps, more closely matching media transfer rates, which will greatly improve the viability of Fibre Channel technology in the IT marketplace.

The future of Fibre Channel technology breakthroughs will come in three waves: 1) a significant increase in plug-and-play products across a wide array of vendors, 2) a new breed of system management applications, and 3) new types of infrastructure products, called enterprise Fibre Channel frameworks.

Wave 1 - Plug and Play

Currently, the Fibre Channel market consists of several vendors that provide different solutions. Although great effort has been made to improve technology, these solutions do not work together to provide plug-and-play device interoperability. As the Fibre Channel standard matures, corporations will benefit from the interoperability of hardware in heterogeneous environments.

Current Fibre Channel switch technology can be improved by moving the networking process requirements off of central hosts and onto switches. This would require a smart technology, similar to switch director technology, to manage the log-ons, protocol formatting, and data transmissions within the switches. This type of intelligence management would allow for large data transfers between hosts and peripherals with almost no host-processing-time contention.

Wave 2 - Monitoring and Management

Future monitoring and management will be accomplished through the use of a systems management-like console and associated Fibre Channel enterprise framework. The system console will be a central reporting point for activities such as performance metrics, operational availability, failure prediction and analysis, and assistance in troubleshooting network problems. This will allow organizations to manage entire Fibre Channel IT infrastructures from a single point.

The Fibre Channel management console will support enterprise systems management of all related computing and communications devices and processes, including servers, networks, hosts, switches, hubs, and nodes. The management software will control data transfers between ports, nodes, and fabrics in the Fibre Channel network. The management console will also determine the best path to a specific device to transfer data through the network. In addition to monitoring data transfers, the management console will show statistics on throughput, contention for resources, success or failure of data transfers, and the availability of nodes on the network.

Wave 3 - Enterprise frameworks

Frameworks will provide a layer of common services to support event and data management and communication. They will be scalable and flexible, serving as the "glue" that holds the Fibre Channel infrastructure together. Frameworks provide an enterprise-wide software backplane for task-specific tools to monitor and improve the performance of systems, devices, and processes.

Vendors will offer different framework products with different architectures. Several technical aspects that most Fibre Channel frameworks should employ include:

•Open, object-oriented framework that includes a set of managers, brokers, and agents that conform to the Object Management Group/Common Object Request Broker Architecture (OMG/CORBA)

•Common integrated services to share data and communicate critical system events that enables task and process automation in distributed environments

•Single, global view of the diverse Fibre Channel-related IT resources

•An architecture based on universal management processes

•A consistent set of management processes that can be used whether or not a network device, system, application, or database is being managed

Evaluating Fibre Channel frameworks

Category Description

System architecture This category assesses all aspects of the Fibre Channel framework environment and related components, including hardware and software. It focuses on framework design.

Completeness Describes a Fibre Channel framework`s ability to meet functional requirements "out of the box." Allows quicker integration and customization from IT staff and decreases reengineering resource needs.

Scalability Relates to the framework`s ability to provide additional features and interfaces to meet future requirements. It also encompasses the ability to boost functionality through third-party add-on products.

Robustness Addresses the stability of a framework in relation to its function during startup, shutdown, and execution in a specified operating environment.

Customization Evaluates the ease (or difficulty) of using framework customization tools. Other factors include whether the tools are included with the product and whether skilled programmers will be needed for customization.

Management Focuses on the level of difficulty to implement changes in a production environment after the initial installation and setup.

Support Focuses on whether software vendors provide adequate support during and after installation. Also considers the level of support promised by vendors once the product is in production.

Standards A standard may be ratified by recognized bodies such as ANSI, ISO, NIST or the IEEE, or it may be a de facto standard. Because a product is standards-compliant does not necessarily mean that it is or will be in widespread use. Conversely, widely-used products do not necessarily meet prescribed standards. In fact, they may be proprietary. Consortia that develop and support open systems tend to create de facto standards due to their collective influence.

Open systems A NIST document defines an "open-system environment" as one that consists of a computing support infrastructure that facilitates the acquisition of applications that:

•Execute on any vendor`s platform

•Use any vendor`s operating system

•Access any vendor`s database

•Communicate and interoperate over any vendor`s network

•Are secure and manageable

•Interact with users through a common interface

The implied result of an open-system environment is support for interoperability, portability, and scalability of applications. This result comes about through the use of standard services, interfaces, data formats, and protocols. The standards may consist of international, national, industry, or other specifications.

Fibre Channel penetrates the enterprise

Current IT applications

•Image archiving

•Disaster recovery


•Storage area networks

•Real-time audio/video on-demand

•Digital image manipulation

•Data warehousing

•Multi-platform storage

Future services

•Infrastructure communication support

•Standard IS center configuration

•SAN monitoring and management

•Systems management

•Performance monitoring

•IT asset tracking

•Total cost of ownership (TCO) monitoring

•Network operations metrics

•Diagnostics and recovery

•Content and application management

•Asset and configuration management

Future IT benefits

•SAN monitoring and management

•Fault and event monitoring

•Performance monitoring

•Software distribution

•Increased security

•Configuration control

•Improved inventory control

•More efficient job scheduling

•Reduced management through improved sharing of IT resources

Bruce B. Biggs is senior technical fellow (STF) at Litton PRC ( and technical director of the Complex Imaging and Integration Systems (CIIS) division, in McLean, VA.

Tom Houston is an associate engineer on the SETA project. He aided in the design and implementation of the PTO`s Enterprise Asset Management System.

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