8-Gig Fibre Channel Slowly Makes Its Mark

The ecosystem for the high-speed technology has been slow to develop, so few corporations have deployed the technology to date

April 10, 2009

4 Min Read
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Data storage systems are like adrenaline junkies -- they have a never-ending thirst for faster speeds. Consequently, Fibre Channel, which has been a popular connectivity option in large enterprises, now finds itself making the transition from a top speed of 4 Gbit/s to 8 Gbit/s as the new high end. To date, the change had not encountered any technical hiccups, but has been moving slowly because some see a transition point on the horizon away from Fibre Channel to other high-speed networking options.

Data center equipment has been getting faster recently. Hardware advances, such as dual-core and quad-core systems, have increased servers' processing capacity. Advances such as server virtualization -- where a server is partitioned logically to emulate multiple virtual servers -- pushed the volume of data that a system could work with. Also, corporations have been consolidating the number of systems they use, so fewer boxes are responsible for processing more information.

These improvements have created a ripple effect in corporate networks. "As virtualization, and by extension cloud computing, gain momentum, wider pipes will be needed to keep enterprises from drowning in their own productivity," says Jeff Boles, senior analyst at research firm Taneja Group. As computers and storage systems become more powerful, they need faster interfaces to move information among server, switches and storage arrays.

Fibre Channel has been an attractive option for companies seeking high performance and low latency. "Companies have been working with Fibre Channels for many years, so they have developed a great deal of internal expertise about how to manage it," says Bob Laliberte, an analyst with research firm Enterprise Strategy Group.

The Fibre Channel Industry Association has been in charge of driving standards for higher speeds. In 2006, the group finished the 8-Gbit/s specification, which had to be backwardly compatibility with the last two top speeds: 4-Gbit/s and 2-Gbit/s systems. Vendors began rolling out the new high-speed systems in 2008. Brocade and Cisco have been at the forefront of delivering higher-speed switches, and Emulex, EMC, Hitachi, HP, and IBM have been some of the storage vendors promoting the shift.Outlining a specification is only a first step toward its adoption. An ecosystem must be developed. Component suppliers must develop faster microprocessors. Network equipment suppliers must deliver higher performance switches. Sever and storage system vendors need to add new interfaces to their products. Data storage applications and backup software must be developed.

The 8-Gbit/s ecosystem has been slow to develop, so few corporations have deployed the technology to date. One reason is not everyone agrees that there is a need for the faster links. "Many companies are not yet filling up their 4-Gig connections, so interest in 8 Gig has come in only a few select areas," says Paolo Perazzo, product line manager at Cisco.

Other vendors disagree. "Because of the some of the changes taking place in data centers as well as the new applications that companies have deployed, we have seen significant demand in 8-Gig products," says Erik Pounds, product marketing manager at Brocade.

Cost is another factor. While vendors can deliver twice as much bandwidth, customers do not want to pay twice as much they paid for their 4-Gbit/s connections. Currently, 8-Gbit/s products command a hefty premium of 50 percent to 60 percent more than 4-Gbit/s products. Increasing the shipment volumes would drive down the prices. However, at the moment, the market is caught in a chicken-or-egg scenario. Vendors need more paying customers to drive down costs, but IT departments want lower prices before signing on.

Another challenge is more high-speed options have emerged. Inifiband, which has been popular in the high-performance computing market, offers companies 20 Gbit/s to 40 Gbit/s of bandwidth.There is also growing interest in using Fiber Channel over Ethernet, which runs on 10-Gbit/s Ethernet networks. Network consistency is the big appeal with this option. Rather than run separate Ethernet and Fibre Channel connections for LAN traffic and storage traffic, companies could consolidate them and have a more cohesive network architecture.

Aware of the competition, Fibre Channel supporters have already begun to examine ways to again double its top speed, this time to 16 Gbit/s. The work now is a nascent stage, with vendors laying down the groundwork for the higher speed option. Products seem at least a few years away from delivery. That raises a question -- will it arrive in time to satisfy the needs of next-generation storage systems?

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the challenges around enterprise storage. Download the report here (registration required).

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