Fibre Channel Readies for 16 G Era

Arthur Cole

16 G Fibre Channel is finally here, so we should expect to see the first wave of commercial products hit the channel by the beginning of the year.

And while no one can argue against a doubling of throughput and the dramatic improvements in density and power consumption that the new standard provides, I find it a bit ironic that even through storage architectures are beginning to flatten out over unified fabrics, tiering will remain alive and well within the various storage and networking protocols.

The ANSI T11 Technical Committee took the final vote on FC-PI-5 earlier this week, continuing the steady progression from 1, 2, 4, 8 and now 16 Gbps. The goal all along was to provide a more vibrant protocol that would preserve backward compatibility with existing infrastructure, a move that enhances rollout prospects by eliminating the need for a full networking overhaul. In the bargain, the standard doubles throughput over the 8 G version and maintains a 40 percent boost over 10 GbE SAN technology. You also gain up to a two-fold increase in SAN I/O density and VMs per port, plus you free up PCIe slots for enhanced interconnectivity and other uses.

Since all of the major Fibre Channel vendors were intimately involved in the development and ratification of the new standard, it's no surprise that they announced support almost instantly. Brocade will surely incorporate it into the DCX Backbone family along with its lines of SAN directors, switches and HBAs. Expect the company to package 16 G with its new Virtual Cluster Switching (VCS) platform as a means to expedite the larger data loads that come with virtual and cloud environments.

Emulex will no doubt quickly add the technology into its LightPulse HBA line and will likely introduce a common FC stack for its portfolio of Fibre Channel over Ethernet products. It's here that the concept of "fabric tiering" will get a workout, with the company talking about targeting various data loads to the different levels of Fibre Channel. At 16 G, though, the highest tier would have to remain on native FC infrastructure until the next generation of Ethernet, 40G, sees widespread deployment.

QLogic is also promising a full roadmap of 16 G products in the new year, which would most likely include its standard server and blade adapters, as well as its modular, stackable and rack-mounted switches. The company already has several lines of 4 G and 8 G adapters for Dell, HP, IBM and Sun, so it shouldn't be too much of a stretch to add 16 G to the channel in relatively short order.

All of this is good news since, as Dell'Oro Group recently reported, SAN port shipments hit near-record levels in the first half of 2010, approaching 1.6 million. Much of the gain was the sudden popularity of 8 G Fibre Channel, indicating there is no shortage of demand for high-performance storage networking.

But with all these rapid advances in technology, particularly as they pursue parallel lines on Fibre Channel and Ethernet platforms, planning out the proper upgrade path is becoming increasingly challenging.

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