Who needs 4Gbps Fibre Channel?

By Sonia R. Lelii

Host bus adapter (HBA) and switch vendors are expected to usher in 4Gbps Fibre Channel products late this year or early next year, a move that will make 4Gbps an interim speed before the industry takes on the major transition to 10Gbps Fibre Channel.

For example, this fall, QLogic plans to unveil a slew of 4Gbps products, including switches, HBAs, and controllers, while switch vendors Brocade and McData plan to ship 4Gbps switches to OEMs and end users in the first half of next year.

The move to 4Gbps Fibre Channel, which under the covers is the same as 2Gbps but is twice as fast, is a transition technology that gives users more speed at approximately the same prices as 2Gbps products. "We expect the 4Gbps price point to be the same as 2Gbps," says Frank Berry, vice president of marketing at QLogic.

As for end-user adoption of 4Gbps Fibre Channel, it's estimated that a small user base will make a quick move to 4Gbps technology solely because they need more bandwidth, according to Rick Villars, vice president of storage systems at International Data Corp.

"Less than 5% [of existing Fibre Channel users] will look at 4Gbps technology because they absolutely need the throughput," Villars predicts. "[4Gbps] is not happening because customers are pushing for more horsepower. The manufacturers are driving this."

One key application that may make 4Gbps attractive is backup. IT storage managers are contending with shorter and shorter backup windows. Theoretically, 4Gbps goes twice as fast as 2Gbps, which implies a 2x performance increase for backups.

"From what I am hearing, 4Gbps may show up in tape drives first," says Jay Kidd, chief technology officer at Brocade.

Other users that could benefit from 4Gbps speeds are media production houses or cable providers that deal with real-time streaming video applications.

However, users that do not have bandwidth issues are not in a hurry to get 4Gbps products into their environments. Craig McNight, a Unix systems administrator at Northwestern University, says there are no plans in the works at the university to upgrade from its current 2Gbps Fibre Channel SAN.

Northwestern has 150 to 200 servers, and many HBAs would have to be switched out if the university were to upgrade to 4Gbps Fibre Channel.

"We don't have a huge [bandwidth] issue," says McNight, "and there are a lot of [more important] projects going on."

Scott Blancett, a senior project manager in the IT department at Johns Manville, a manufacturer of insulation and roofing products, says his company has no immediate plans to move to 4Gbps Fibre Channel. "We might go to 4Gbps when the price point goes down to 2Gbps prices. Will I rip out my entire infrastructure to go to 4Gbps? No. Will I even rip out my entire infrastructure to go to 10Gbps? No. It's all about the money," says Blancett.

Some vendors, however, are hoping for the "consumer effect" to help pull customers into upgrading to 4Gbps. "In other words, once a customer gets a 4Gbps component from one vendor then he/she wants it from every vendor," says Peter Dougherty, vice president of switch operations at McData.

"Users want to feel comfortable that they're getting the 'latest and greatest,' " adds Dougherty. But he concedes that the new speed needs to be supported in hosts, switches and targets before users can get the full performance benefit. This is because SAN components will "auto-negotiate" down to the speed of the slowest component on the link.

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This article was originally published on June 07, 2004