Next Up for Fibre Channel: Hubs and Switches

Next Up for Fibre Channel: Hubs and Switches

John McIntosh

Storage Systems Marketing

Fibre Channel products are shipping today, but general market awareness is limited. However, in the next six to nine months, a number of Fibre Channel products will dramatically raise end-user awareness of this technology.

By next summer, demand should be substantial and growing strong. As the market emerges, it`s important for end-users to understand that Fibre Channel technology has been under development for some time.

For example, Sun has been shipping Fibre Channel solutions that interconnect storage arrays to processors since early 1994. By Sun`s estimation, they`ve shipped more than 250,000 Fibre Channel ports, including host interconnects.

Early Fibre Channel configurations are basic high-speed point-to-point connections between I/O-intensive applications and storage. The primary benefits are high data rates (over 100MBps) and extended cable length (30 meters with copper cable; up to 10 kilometers with fiber-optic cable). One potential drawback is that current solutions are not "open," that is, storage products from one vendor are usually not interoperable with system products from other vendors.

The next two Fibre Channel product classes are hubs and switches. Hubs are relatively inexpensive (less than $2,500) and allow users to attach many devices and systems using one Fibre Channel arbitrated loop. Up to 126 devices can share the 100MBps+ bandwidth of a Fibre Channel loop with hot-pluggable connectors.

Hubs will initially allow multiple systems to attach to multiple storage devices. This is especially attractive when one system is active and the other(s) is passive, as in a fail-over scenario. Hubs offer end-users connectivity, device sharing, and high-speed data transfer.

Fibre Channel hubs are available from vendors such as Emulex, Gadzoox, and Vixel.

Switches offer multiple high-speed point-to-point connections between systems and data storage devices, but at a higher price than hubs. Switches will be most attractive for enterprise storage networks where the ability to address data storage from multiple points is vital. Although Fibre Channel switches are shipping today, their primary use is in system-to-system communication using IP. In the storage world, switches will initially be used to provide device switching in a fail-over environment.

Fibre Channel switches are available from vendors such as Ancor, Arcxel, Brocade Communications, and McData.

IT managers can no longer tolerate system downtime in the face of tremendous growth in the external storage-array market. Users want a flexible, scalable storage interconnect solution that will allow them to change their storage and server farms on the fly, without having to take the devices off-line.

Craig Mirsky, assistant vice president of corporate technology at Evern Securities in Chicago, says, "Being able to avoid bringing the system down to add additional drives is very important to us." Similarly, Daniel Strout, director of distributed systems for Comdisco, says, "It would be great to plug and unplug disk subsystems and tape libraries without having to take down the entire system."

Future Fibre Channel applications hold even greater promise. The possibility of sharing storage across multiple systems--even multiple system types--could dramatically change the computing environment, eliminating many system connectivity problems and providing dramatic new capabilities.

One highly-desired future Fibre Channel storage application is the ability to attach a single tape library system to a number of servers, allowing each server to back up to the library. Edward Krippes, vice president of computer production services at First National Bank of Chicago, says "My number one area of interest is disaster backup, which implies a centralized backup capability servicing many systems."

Fibre Channel has not been very visible to date, but virtually all major system vendors are poised to deliver next-generation products.

Further fueling the market are a wider variety of Fibre Channel products, ranging from storage subsystems to hubs and switches. In short, Fibre Channel technology meets broad market needs: performance, connectivity, distance, and scalability.

John McIntosh is president of Storage Systems Marketing in Boulder, CO, a sales and marketing consulting firm specializing in the data storage market. For more information, visit www.storagesys.com.

This article was originally published on December 01, 1997