Tips on Future-Proofing Your Fibre Channel Assets

Posted on March 24, 2014 By Drew Robb

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Last week, InfoStor featured a story called Does Fibre Channel Have a Future in a Software-Defined World? Now we follow up with tips on how to future proof your Fibre Channel (FC) assets  – despite the onslaught of software defined storage (SDS), virtualization, iSCSI disk, flash and the cloud.

Stay in the Loop

The days of the storage administrator being lord and master over their domain are largely over. It’s not uncommon for management to suddenly decide things are going “all cloud now” and it’s up to the storage manager to cope with the fallout.

Therefore, it falls upon the shoulders of the storage department to stay in the loop so its needs and requirements are considered.

“By and large the biggest thing to consider is what's going to impact FC networks via decisions that are made indirectly,” said J Michel Metz, Product Manager for Storage for Cisco. “For instance, what are the organization's plans that involve future software considerations, such as software defined networking (SDN), OpenStack and OpenFlow.”

Unified or Separate

With the growing popularity of the software-defined data center (SDDC), a grand plan may already be afoot to create one in your company. As well as finding out about it, the storage department has to understand what that actually means in terms of protocols.

Metz added that they have to determine whether or not they want to keep a separate infrastructure/ administration/ management silo for their existing storage in the long run, or if the FC hardware/software is upgradable to these types of environments.

“That's the greatest question mark in the entire long-term future proofing strategy,” said Metz.

Choose Multi-Protocol and Hot Swappable Products

Another tip from Metz concerns the type of tools to opt for – those that have the highest likelihood of being useful long into the future. For example, most assets are considered "future-proofed" when they are designed to be field-upgradable over time. Generally speaking, added Metz, this means using a modular (also known as Director) chassis that has hot-swappable components (supervisors, fabric modules, line cards, power supplies, fans, etc.).

“Storage environments are also evolving to include multiple protocols, so depending upon what the needs of the data center are there may be a need for Fibre Channel or FCoE, or even distance solutions like FCIP - all available in the same piece of equipment,” said Metz. 

Need for Speed

Some storage personnel are concerned about the invasion of flash into their worlds. Metz believes that the impact of Solid State Drives (SSDs) and other forms of flash in the SAN will be minimal. As he puts it, administrators still need to concern themselves with "packets on the wire," regardless of their ultimate destination.

“The key impact of those technologies will be the interfaces into the network, and whether or not they will be ultimately connected to slower hosts (e.g., older 2G or 4G hosts are still in production),” said Metz. “This can lead to slow drain issues as the array can send back more information than the individual hosts can accommodate. That is not indigenous to SSDs, however, but rather the interconnect speed.” 

Stick to Standards

Those seeking to ensure their FC infrastructures are good to go for years to come are advised to stick to standards such as those put forth by the Fibre Channel Industry Association. For instance, FC connectivity has been made as simple as a lamp cord into a wall socket via the Small Form-factor Pluggable (SFP) socket standard being used by vendors today.

“One thing that Fibre Channel has offered for multiple generations is the use of the same form factor for the interconnect, the SFP,” said Greg McSorley, Technical Business Development Manager, Amphenol High Speed Products.  “Going forward to 64Gb it is still intended to be the SFP.”

While this interface may need modification for higher speeds, it is backward compatible in form, fit and function. Similarly for the upcoming 128GFC, the plan is to reuse existing interconnect standards so there is nothing new and exotic for developers to worry about, said McSorley.

Move to the Latest Generation

Over its history, there have been many different generations of Fibre Channel. Current Gen 5 FC is the one that enterprises should move toward due to its features, speeds and the plans for future generations.  “With rapid advances in compute and storage technology, it’s critical that the storage network is assessed and upgraded in order to maximize the return on investment of application, server, and storage investments,” said Scott Shimomura, Director of Product Marketing, Brocade.

He said that Gen 5 Fibre Channel technology offers low latency and 16 Gbps networking performance that is more than generally enough for virtualized applications (server and desktop) as well as flash-based storage.

“Legacy networks weren’t designed to handle current workloads running on flash-based storage and won’t be able to keep up as technology continues to evolve and improve,” said Shimomura. “Beyond the raw performance of the networks, Gen 5 Fibre Channel technology also includes functionality that makes deploying and managing SANs easier and more reliable.” Mike Jochimsen, Director of Product Marketing and Alliances, Emulex, added that Gen 5 also comes with features such as T10 Protection Information (T10 PI) for ensuring the integrity of data as it traverses the fabric from application to disk and back, as well as quality of service (QoS) to ensure that high-priority applications can meet service level agreements (SLAs) by prioritizing their traffic in the fabric. 

Mark Jones, FCIA’s President, noted that the Fibre Channel specification calls for products to be backwards compatible for at least two generations. So that’s a major criteria on upgrade decisions.

“If you have existing products you may want to consider the timeframe for which they will remain speed compatible with products that are currently shipping,” said Jones.  “For instance if your vendor is currently shipping products that are 16GFC, you can be assured that your 4GFC product can operate when plugged into the newer products.” 

His recommendation is to create a lifecycle plan so that when new storage products are procured, you purchase those at the highest available speeds in order to assure the greatest longevity.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


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