Fibre Channel Faces Growing Challenges

Enterprises are looking for higher speed storage connections because of the growing volume of data and they want new types of communications links because their various data center networks have emerged in isolation.

May 11, 2009

4 Min Read
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The need has been ongoing in many enterprises: more data stored means that faster data connections for storage networks are required. For more than two decades, Fibre Channel has met the demands of many large companies, but now the storage networking option faces its greatest challenges, mainly because of changes in data center equipment design.

A variety of factors are forcing many enterprises to pump more information over their data center connections. Multiple processor cores, virtualization, and clustering are boosting computer power, so these systems are able to support more sophisticated applications. Video use has become more popular and is being used internally to enhance communications as well as externally to entice new customers. Analytics have enabled companies to collect and examine more information, so they can accurately gauge business performance. As a result, terabytes have quickly morphed into petabytes of information.

In addition, consolidation is gaining momentum in the data center. New unified computing platforms are emerging that support server, storage, and networking functions. Virtualization is helping companies amalgamate autonomous servers. These multi-function devices require fatter pipes in order to transmit the growing volume of data that they have collected.

So the challenge for these corporations is twofold. Immediately, they need to find higher speed storage connections because of the growing volume of data. Longer term, they want new types of communications links because their networks have emerged in isolation: Fibre Channel connects their storage systems, InfiniBand links their servers for high performance, and Ethernet supports corporate networks. This approach can require that they buy three network interface cards, deploy three types of network cabling and operate three management systems. They would like to consolidate those items, but at the moment, there is no clear path from where they are now to where they want to be in the future.

Fibre Channel is clearly a part of where they are now. "Many companies have deployed Fibre Channel to address their high-speed storage networking needs," says Bob Laliberte, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group.

But it is facing more competition as these changes take hold. "Many environments are facing performance and scalability challenges that are pushing them away from Fiber Channel SANs," says Jeff Boles, senior analyst at Taneja Group. InfiniBand has been gaining support in the high-speed storage market, and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) is emerging as a potential way to consolidate different types of networks.

InfiniBand, which emerged at the turn of the millennium, has been popular because it offers the highest speed of the various connections. Vendors have been shipping 10-Gbit/s and 20-Gbit/s versions and are now getting a 40-Gbit/s option ready. The speed has helped the technology gain acceptance in high-performance applications, such as bioscience, drug research, data mining, digital rendering, electronic design, and weather analysis.

Supporters initially positioned InfiniBand as a general-purpose, high-speed data center network interconnect, but its high prices have kept it from moving down the ladder. Backers will note that the networking option has a low cost on a per gigabit per second basis, but many companies just see its steep initial price tag.

Ethernet may present a more daunting challenge to Fibre Channel. The networking option has been popular for connecting PCs, servers, and switches. In addition, it has been widely adopted in wide-area networks (WANs). Ethernet WAN services will generate $38.3 billion in worldwide revenue by 2013, according to projections by Vertical Systems Group. Because of its widespread use in other areas, Ethernet seems a likely candidate to emerge as a prime competitor in consolidated networks.

Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) maps Fibre Channel so it runs over Ethernet connections. The specification is supported by a large number of network and storage vendors, including Blade Network Technologies, Broadcom, Brocade, Cisco, EMC, Emulex, Hitachi Data Systems, HP, IBM, NetApp, and Sun Microsystems. However, Ethernet's design could create latency issues that may slow performance. Several vendors have developed "loss-less" versions of Ethernet that they say will solve that problem, and there seems to be significant desire among enterprises to collapse their networks onto a single fabric.

Fibre Channel has some strengths that it can fall back on as the market matures. The technology has been deployed in many companies, so data center staffs understand how to use it. The network option has been enhanced so it spans hundreds of kilometers and can be used as a WAN connectivity mechanism. With 8-Gbit/s Fibre Channel products making their way into the market, work has begun on a 16-Git/s version, so there is a clear path to higher performing systems.

Fibre Channel will have overcome new challenges to retain its market leading position as the storage networking option of choice in enterprises. "Fiber Channel is a de facto standard and a fixture in the industry for today and tomorrow," says Boles. "But it is rapidly reaching its peak, and within the next two years we will begin to see these other fabrics seriously compete with it and then give Fibre Channel a real challenge for future market share."

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

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