Fibre Channel, Ultra-160 SCSI drives highlight Comdex

Fibre Channel, Ultra-160 SCSI drives highlight Comdex

This month`s announcements indicate strong demand for both interfaces.

John Haystead

This month`s Comdex marked a major ramp-up in the emerging Fibre Channel disk drive market as multiple drive vendors announced immediate plans to join Seagate in full production of Fibre Channel drives. Comdex also served as the focal point for a number of Ultra-160 SCSI introductions.

The host of Fibre Channel drive introductions is a clear harbinger of the storage market`s eventual transition to full end-to-end Fibre Channel solutions, at least for high-end storage subsystems. "The Fibre Channel market is about to really take off," says Brian Nass, site manager for the enterprise storage group and vice president of product marketing at Western Digital. Nass expects Fibre Channel to move from its current sub-10% slice of the enterprise market "up to maybe 30% over the next 18-24 months."

Steve Pereira, program director of marketing at IBM, agrees: "Certainly from the storage subsystem side, there`s a definite transition toward Fibre Channel." Pereira pegs the total Fibre Channel drive market this year at about 6% of the total, but expects it to grow to 13%-20% next year.

With additional drive vendors entering the supply chain, the cart-and-horse quandary that has thus far plagued the Fibre Channel market may finally be resolved. As observed by IBM`s Pereira, "To date, the limited number of Fibre Channel drive suppliers has held up the pace of the market. The market needs at least three volume suppliers to really make Fibre Channel take off, and that`s now happening."

Still, Western Digital`s Nass cautions that a lack of compatibility could continue to slow the pace of Fibre Channel adoption. "The industry needs to rapidly deal with incompatibility issues, by pre-testing Fibre Channel drives with all the hubs, switches, and other drives available."

Ron Torten, director of program marketing at Quantum, believes the adoption rate of Fibre Channel drives will continue to be somewhat slow, becoming mainstream in the 2004 time frame. Although storage area networks (SANs) will significantly drive the Fibre Channel market and although SANs themselves run on fiber, SCSI is less expensive at both the drive and subsystem level, says Torten. In addition, performance may be similar. "SCSI drive builders are continuing to increase speed, going to 160MBps and eventually to 320MBps, which means the drives in the boxes actually have similar speeds whether Fibre Channel or SCSI," he says.

Robert Commins, director of enterprise products at Fujitsu, agrees. "The transition to Fibre Channel has been slower at the drive level than people expected. SCSI has been able to deliver the required performance levels, especially with the new Ultra-160 drives." Commins says it is still hard to predict whether or when Fibre Channel will become the dominant interface. Still, he says, "if SANS do take off, the complexity of these architectures will help Fibre Channel because SCSI is too cumbersome for these large, complex networks."

Not surprisingly, pricing remains a major factor in the adoption rate of Fibre Channel drives. "While Seagate has had a policy of selling its Fibre Channel drives for the same price as its Ultra-2 SCSI products, other drive makers have not always followed this policy," notes Jim Porter, president of Disk/Trend, a storage market research firm in Mountain View, CA."

The emergence of a low-priced SCSI segment within the overall server market also affects the adoption rate, says Porter. Even SANs, which have thus far been regarded as primarily high-end applications, are now being discussed in the context of small servers and PC networks, which will be predominantly low-end SCSI.

"Since price/capacity is the principal driver in the low-end SCSI market, there won`t be a quick conversion to Fibre Channel," he explains. "Most drive makers now offer 7,200rpm desktop drives, and since everything on these high-end IDE and low-end SCSI drives are the same except for the controller electronics, they are able to combine the platforms to a large extent and significantly reduce the cost of their low-end SCSI products."

While the performance-oriented side of the server market will move to Fibre Channel, Porter expects the price-sensitive segment to stay with SCSI for some time. But it is possible that the two market segments could reach rough parity as early as next year. "The variable that will most control the market will be the drive makers` Fibre Channel pricing policies, and whether they really offer competitive pricing with high-end SCSI drives."

New Fibre Channel products

Market leader Seagate continues to enhance its Fibre Channel product line, recently announcing its fifth generation--as well as support for Ultra-160 SCSI, with the roll out of its new family of Cheetah drives. Targeted at the enterprise storage market, the 1Gbps 10,000rpm Cheetahs will have 18GB, 36GB, and 72GB capacities. Seagate will ship early units of the 1-inch-high 18GB Cheetah 18XL and 36GB Cheetah 36LP to OEMs by the end of the year, while the 73GB half-height Cheetah 73HH will ship in the first quarter.

The product launches also mark the introduction of Seagate`s "3D Defense System" to its entire enterprise product line. The technology protects against the rotational vibration typically found in multi-drive cabinets, helping prevent missed read attempts and data loss during write operations.

Meanwhile, IBM has announced 1-inch-high 10,000rpm Ultra-160 SCSI and Fibre Channel drive families. The Ultrastar drives have 4.9ms access times and 36GB, 18GB, and 9GB capacities.

IBM is also adding a number of new design features with the Ultrastar family. For greater reliability, the drives will feature very smooth glass-media disks. IBM has been using glass disks on its mobile products for a number of years, having first introduced the media to its enterprise drive line about six months ago. IBM has also moved to a single-processor design for the Ultrastar logic card, which Pereira says delivers a three-fold improvement in power/performance over previous designs, reduces card size, and improves reliability.

The drives will also feature "ramp load/unload," a mechanism to reduce contact start/stop interaction by parking the head off the disk in power/standby mode. Since it is not necessary to maintain power to the actuator flying the head over the disk, Pereira says the approach also provides about a 20% power reduction.

Another new design feature is an "active damping" mechanism, which uses a vibration sensor on the drive arm. A closed-loop within the drive electronics senses and cancels out the individual vibration frequency on each head, providing faster head-to-disk settle times.

IBM is already shipping qualification units of the Ultra-160 SCSI drives to major OEMs, while the Fibre Channel drives, which will be up to 2Gbps, will be available in the first quarter. Pereira says he expects most OEMs to begin qualifying the 2Gbps Fibre Channel option by the second quarter of next year.

Quantum is also in full production of its high-performance Atlas 10K drive family, which includes a full-duplex, dual-port Fibre Channel drive. The 3.5-inch drives, with 3-inch disk media, will provide 9GB, 18GB, and 36GB capacities. Torten notes that Quantum has performed a significant amount of up-front compatibility testing on its Fibre Channel drives with its OEM partners, including a demonstration of up to 200 drives running on a single loop.

Fujitsu has also announced 10,000rpm Fibre Channel drives. The 1Gbps Enterprise 10K series will be offered in 9GB, 18GB, and 36GB capacities, and will be in volume production in the first quarter. Incorporating 3-inch diameter media for reduced power consumption, the drives have seek times as low as 5.2ms. Commins expects the Fibre Channel drives to be priced comparably to SCSI products.

Fujitsu is also in the process of qualifying drives with the Ultra-160 SCSI interface, and volume shipments are expected by the end of the year.

Ultra-160 SCSI

Together with their Fibre Channel offerings, disk drive vendors continue to strongly support SCSI, simultaneously announcing drives based on the Ultra-160 SCSI standard, a subset of Ultra SCSI. Like Fibre Channel, however, the new interface has experienced some growing pains, including the slow introduction of Ultra-160-compatible host bus adapters (HBAs).

HBAs that support Ultra-160 SCSI are now beginning to roll out, however, says Chendren Cheriyen, product line manager for Quantum`s high-end storage division, and a number of system OEMs have already announced Ultra-160 products. "Host adapters always tend to lag the market, but we see good growth in the Ultra-160 market, and HBAs should not be an issue by the time our drives hit the street."

Western Digital`s Nass also expects significant business from Ultra-160 products. "It will really take off next year. Right now, the market is limited by adapter availability, but by the end of 2000 Ultra-160 drives will probably outship LVD drives and we`ll have a clear idea of what the next generation will be--probably another doubling of bus speed."

In addition to providing Ultra-160 SCSI on its new Cheetah drives, Seagate will offer the interface on a number of other new SCSI drives, including the 18GB 7,200rpm Barracuda 18XL, which will ship to OEMs by year-end.

Meanwhile, Quantum has announced its Atlas V Ultra-160 SCSI drives. Scheduled to ship in the first quarter, the 7,200rpm drives will be available in 9GB, 18GB, and 36GB capacities in a 1-inch-high form factor with an average seek time of 6.3ms.

Cheriyen says Atlas V was designed to meet the requirements of the value segment of the drive market. Quantum has incorporated a number of reliability features in the Atlas V, such as its Data Protection System, which until now was only available on its ATA products, and an improved shock-protection system using smaller suspensions and increased space between disks.

The Atlas V will also have an embedded thermal sensor to continuously monitor drive temperature, as well as an embedded shock sensor to prevent the drive from writing bad data to the disk in the event of a shock. Cheriyen says host adapters accommodating all of these features should be available sometime next year.

Although Western Digital is not exhibiting at this month`s Comdex, it plans to ship Ultra-160 SCSI and Fibre Channel drives in the second quarter. According to Nass, the drives will be 36GB, 18GB, and 9GB 3.5-inch devices in a 1-inch-high form factor at 10,000 rpm. The drives will be offered with both 1Gbps Fibre Channel, as well as Ultra-160 SCSI interfaces.

Nass says the drives will incorporate a number of performance-enhancing features such as the company`s command queuing engine, which eliminates some of the overhead associated with relatively-small block transfers. "We`ve shown that command queueing can allow maximum data rates to be sustained all the way down to very small block sizes, says Nass. Western Digital`s Fibre Channel drives will also incorporate additional hardware automation to reduce overhead associated with passing data on a loop.

Nass expects any price differential between SCSI and Fibre Channel drives to be dictated by the market and large OEMs. Though identical pricing has been the strategy of vendors such as Seagate, "there is added value in Fibre Channel devices that should probably command some sort of price delta, although we`re planning on following the general trend that Seagate is setting," he says.

Demand drops for 1.6" drives

Another general trend that can be seen in the latest spate of drive announcements is an overall move away from 1.6-inch half-high drives. For example, Quantum`s initial Atlas V plans included a 1.6-inch version, but after talking to major OEM customers, Cheriyen says they decided against it due to low demand. "We`ve been watching demand for 1.6-inch drives decrease significantly over the past year," he says. "We expect it to be less than 10% of the total this year, and it continues to move downward."

Likewise, IBM has seen demand for 1.6-inch products drop significantly over the last two years. "One-inch drives are really dominating the market now," says Pereira. "Customers in general are happy with current drive capacities." IBM has announced it will offer a 73GB 10,000rpm drive in the half-high form factor in the first quarter.

John Haystead is a freelance writer in Bucksport, ME, and a frequent contributor to InfoStor.

This article was originally published on November 01, 1999