Fibre Channel's Future in a Software-Defined World

By Drew Robb

Whenever new technologies come out they invariably attack the old guard with claims that they are outmoded, slow, cumbersome and expensive. The Nineties, for example, saw the creation of the term “legacy” as a convenient label for items such as the mainframe, UNIX, tape and more recently, Fibre Channel (FC).

“Legacy storage systems were designed using silos of specialized storage stacks, all tweaked for specific application needs,” said Gokul Sathiacama, Senior Director of Product Management, Coraid, which advocates the use of Ethernet as the backplane for data storage traffic. “Traditional storage stacks are ineffective, as they were not designed to stretch across buildings, a metro area or wherever they can find a physical location to place the next storage element of their array.”   Long the heart of the SAN, FC has certainly lost some ground to Ethernet-based SANs over the past decade, particularly at the lower-end of the market. And the relentless wave of virtualization, cloud, flash and now software-defined data center innovation has seem some people question whether FC will survive. Emory Epperson, Media/Analyst Relations Manager at Brocade and spokesperson for the Fibre Chanel Industry Association (FCIA), is certain FC will be there for the long haul.

“Fibre Channel is the only purpose-built and proven network for storage designed to meet the demands of enterprise data centers that require non-stop availability, maximum performance, and seamless scalability,” said Epperson. “With current speeds up to 16 Gbps, it is the most widely deployed storage network infrastructure for virtualization, cloud architectures, and mission-critical applications.”

She points to the numbers to validate her stance: more than 11 million FC ports and 11 Exabytes of FC storage shipped per year (amounting to annual sales close to $120 billion). But the FCIA is not resting on its laurels. It feels the heat from the Ethernet/software defined brigade and it is taking steps to extend its capabilities.

Next up is Gen 6 Fibre Channel, which will provide a major boost in performance, reliability and scalability. With speeds up to 128 Gbps, the first products should hit the market within two years.

FC Gen 6 takes the current speed of FC (16 Gbps) and bumps it up to 32 Gbps. You also will have the options of reaching 128 Gbps by using multiple lines in parallel. In addition, a Forward Error Correction (FEC) feature will improve reliability of links through the automatic detection and recovery from bit errors that can occur in high speed networks. And it addresses the criticism of FC networks as energy hogs by lowering power consumption. Ashish Nadkarni, research director, Storage Systems and Software, IDC, pointed out that businesses are continuing to invest in FC for their high-end storage requirements. Further, he said that the huge installed base of FC users continues to grow and they are demanding new capabilities.

“With the development of Gen 6 Fibre Channel, enterprises should feel confident that their Fibre Channel investments are secure,” said Nadkarni.

So what of the encroachment of software-defined technology? The FCIA is working to incorporate software defined technologies into the long-standing protocol.

“Continued innovation for the Fibre Channel protocol will help ensure future support for software-defined, enterprise data centers,” said Epperson.

She mentioned the many industry players actively working to include software-defined capabilities. Along with FCIA including software defined storage and networking capabilities as part of future standards development, companies such as Brocade, EMC, HP, IBM and others are collaborating to make Fibre Channel a part of the OpenStack environment – support for management of Fibre Channel SAN volumes and zones will be added to OpenStack software this year. Another example is Brocade Network Advisor, which has been integrated with EMC ViPR software-defined storage to provide policy-based automation for EMC and non-EMC storage.

Gen 6 isn’t the end of the line either. The FCIA has a roadmap stretching well into the future to take FC to greater heights. But not everyone is convinced.

Greg Schulz, an analyst at StorageIO Group, thinks FC is past its peak and that new and evolving software defined environments will be looking to leverage 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE), particularly with 40GbE and 100GbE on the horizon.“Hardware-based Fibre Channel as we know it will not be gone in the next few years, as it will stick around in some environments for quite some time,” said Schulz. “However the writing is on the wall. After all, when was the last time you came across a software based (e.g. software defined) Fibre Channel target driver for installation into your Linux based software defined storage system/solution?”

Eren Niazi, Founder and CEO of Open Source Storage, takes the middle ground. He said that FC remains a relevant platform for the enterprise and that there will always be valid uses for fibre channel storage, especially with certain low latency applications that may require block storage, like some databases.

However, the two-year timeline for Gen 6 concerns him, particularly with the Ethernet roadmap being so accelerated.

“When Gen6 reaches maturity, it will less useful then 40GB Ethernet, but is promising up to 128GbFC in full duplex around 32.5MB/s,” said Niazi. “The question is will it be better to invest in much faster Ethernet or SAN?”

With Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), he said, you can extend FC without the need to invest in pricier fibre channel switches. This allows users to utilize much of the same infrastructure that they are using for our other software defined tasks. But if they have write-intensive VMs or databases, the FC layer may be the best home for them.

“In regard to software defined storage within the software defined data center, FC is still has a premier place for those applications that require it,” said Niazi.   

As an open source provider, Open Source Storage wants to use it in multi-tiered storage cloud environments.

“By virtualizing the storage layer as well as the server layer, we want to improve quality of service, maximize our investment by putting objects in their proper storage tier, speed migrations of VMs across hosts, and increase performance that would otherwise be lowered because the storage has become a bottle neck,” said Niazi. “Fibre channel will still be that important tier within enterprise open source storage for years to come.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

This article was originally published on March 14, 2014