Fibre Channel for the Masses?

Arthur Cole

Isn't it interesting how the ever-shifting sands of technological development can turn long-held assumptions on their heads?

Take the case of Fibre Channel. For years it was the gold standard of storage networking, embraced by top-tier enterprises as the only solution capable of providing the lossless transmission of critical data from system to system. Smaller firms had to make do with solutions like iSCSI, which relies on that much inferior IP Ethernet.

But as FalconStor's Chris Poelker recently pointed out on Computerworld, the high-end shops are increasingly gravitating toward SAS and SCSI drives in their arrays, backed by 10 GbE or InfiniBand connectivity. And while it may be too early to say whether this represents the "slow death" of Fibre Channel, it is becoming clear that the protocol is making a rapid shift down-market, even as the new 8 Gbps version hits the channel.

IBM, for example, recently added an 8 Gbps FC interface to its midrange DS3950 storage system, although it unfortunately elected to withhold distribution in the U.S., Canada and China for the Dec. 4 launch. No word yet on when the system will go global, but if you can get your hands on one, you should have no trouble at all pulling data from its more than 67 TB capacity via four FC-Switched and four FC-Arbitrated Loop host ports.

The Sun Blade 6000 is also getting an FC upgrade courtesy of QLogic. The company has provided its 8G Fibre Channel/1G Ethernet ExpressModule for the new StorageTek HBA, offering dual-protocol connectivity to the architecture. The intent is to offer users the ability to virtualize Web applications in tandem with the Sun Blade Virtualized Network Express Module, at once increasing I/O density and consolidating necessary hardware.

For most organizations, adding 8G FC capability means you're still running data through legacy server backplanes and HBAs, which can diminish the lossless performance of the FC link. Vitesse Semiconductor says it has a solution for that in the VSC8238-02 clock and data recovery (CDR) device. The unit features the company's FlexEQ electronic dispersion compensation (EDC) system, which allows 8 G upgrades at both the switch and HBA ends for such high-bandwidth applications as IPTV, Video on Demand and remote data storage.

It would truly be ironic if, in a few short years, Ethernet and iSCSI users started to look down their noses at native Fibre Channel installations, saying it was the poor man's solution in an age of highly sophisticated network convergence. My hunch, though, is that is not likely to happen considering the age of native-anything in the SAN is quickly coming to a close.

In the future, protocols like Fibre Channel will be just that: file formats that can be selected at will based on the needs of the application, not the make-up of the underlying infrastructure.

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