FIBRE CHANNEL<@VM>Buyers Guide table: Fibre Channel devices provide missing link

Need to solve the storage and access puzzle?
This technology puts the pieces together

By Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

It's an apocryphal saying, often attributed to the great man of hard disk technology, Al Shugart, even if no one can quite recall him saying it: 'The great thing about hard drives is, when people fill them up, they buy bigger ones.''

But today, having a bigger storage system isn't necessarily better, and that's where Fibre Channel technology comes in.

Fibre Channel is, at base, a series of specifications for interconnecting large arrays of disk drives with various computer systems. It allows systems managers to combine data warehouses spread over a campus or'with repeaters'a metropolitan area.

It makes it easier to avoid failures of troubled systems because connection speeds are faster: 1 Gbps now, and soon two, four and 10 times that speed. Fibre Channel connections are multi-protocol, allowing various types of data communications quickly and easily.

Edward M. Frymoyer, a leading Fibre Channel analyst and teacher in Half Moon Bay, Calif., pointed out other benefits. 'It gives users greater efficiency, with a more effective capacity utilization, so there's less additional storage capacity needed,'' he said. 'You get a system with 80 percent useful bandwidth vs. less than 30 percent. Users also find Fibre Channel provides easier, more integrated management, and future-proofing, since this technology will be around for many years.''

Aggregating data resources is an important factor in Fibre Channel's growth, said Dennis Talluto, an Electronic Data Systems Corp. technology manager in Auburn Hills, Mich., and chairman of the Fibre Channel Association, a trade group.

'Fibre Channel itself is a family of standards and specifications that describe a robust technology,'' he said. 'There are a lot of very robust and powerful features both in silicon and in the protocol that allow users to accomplish this.''

Talluto said the technology was designed to utilize the best attributes of a channel, a LAN and a WAN to build a powerful infrastructure technology. Because Fibre Channel has a variety of strong attributes, he said, users can create infrastructures that deliver newer and better classes of service and perhaps open the door for applications that could not run previously on a particular system.

'Probably one of the strongest motivations for using Fibre Channel to build system and storage area networks is its connectivity capability,' Talluto said. 'Because it is serial and optical, you can connect systems and storage products that are physically located further from each other'' than the systems and storage products that can be linked using other technologies.

'Because you can cluster these systems and storage products, you can create systems of higher availability than previous configurations,' Talluto said.

He added, 'The concept of doing storage area networks and of implementing SANs for shared storage among computers and clusters of computers is now becoming understood. Fundamentally, what is taking place now is that the idea has been accepted and Fibre Channel is the technology of choice to do this, and the user market is working through the issues of implementing those technologies in their infrastructures.''

The rapid growth of the Fibre Channel market'analyst Frymoyer predicted it will grow from $5.5 billion this year to $30 billion annually in five years'makes it easier to convince high-level management of the usefulness of the technology. Organizations and enterprises are seeing the value, speed and reliability of Fibre Channel (see story, next page) and are rushing to embrace the technology, along with mainstream computer and storage vendors such as Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Hitachi America Ltd. of Brisbane, Calif., IBM Corp. and many others.

Driven by data

'I believe what is actually driving the market is the explosion of information ' the Internet and 'webification' of data, making [information] available to anyone at any time,'' Talluto said.

'Putting larger and larger disk drives in everyone's desktop PC doesn't bring a competitive advantage. Even in technical infrastructures that do not contain major data centers, users are going to consolidate their storage; they will leverage the value of that information,'' he said.

ATTO Technology's ATTO FibreBridge attaches SCSI products to Fibre Channel with full-duplex, 1-Gbps transfer rates. Prices range from $3,296 to $3,895.

The move toward Fibre Channel will come as much from an evolution in corporate data strategy as from anything else, Talluto said.

'As users and corporate IT managers evaluate their infrastructure options, as they work through their business and technical options and strategies, commercial viability and future capabilities will cause people to focus or begin to look at Fibre Channel-based technologies, systems adapters, switches and storage products,'' he said.

Although the initial advantage of Fibre Channel is that it speeds communications between computers and data warehouses, the ability to access and manipulate data more quickly and in more diverse ways is a large part of the payoff. When users consolidate their data stores and establish appropriate configurations and security, data is more easily shared by clients and users, Talluto said.

Uses for Fibre Channel range widely over the business landscape. One of the most popular is to ensure the failover of critical systems.

One business user, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee, has reported that using Fibre Channel not only helped it avoid losing production when a storage subsystem failed, but also contributed to a 10 percent productivity boost. In this instance, the user also found its Hewlett-Packard Co. systems were able to recognize the drives as SCSI devices, eliminating the need for new device drivers.

These are the kinds of advantages that are making Fibre Channel attractive, Talluto said.

Scoring big

'The National Football League and the National Basketball Association are two of the biggest users of Fibre Channel technologies,'' he said. 'It used to be that video film from games had to be manually distributed. Now it's done electronically via very high-performance workstations connected on Fibre Channel infrastructures.'

The SilkWorm 2100 switch from Brocade Communications Systems supports parallel transfer rates of 100 megabytes/sec at each of its eight parts and is upgradeable to full fabric support.

Another area in which Fibre Channel is gaining popularity, he said, is in avionics and fire prevention systems. It also is being evaluated for use in distributed in-seat processing, which will let users connect to host computers, via radio communications, during a flight.

'These are bet-your-business applications,'' Talluto said.

Configuring and buying Fibre Channel systems can present a challenge, Frymoyer said. The increasing number of products means a wider range of choices.

'You have to choose equipment carefully,'' Frymoyer said. 'I would suggest that users begin working with a major integrator, such as EDS, Arthur Andersen & Co. or some of the specialized integrators. Heterogeneous systems are coming along, but you need to be careful that all the parts really do work well together.''

In the near term, much of Fibre Channel's growth will be within campus networks and, using repeaters that can boost transmission distance from 10 kilometers to 120 kilometers within a metropolitan area. But Talluto says that work is under way within the American National Standards Institute to develop standards that will increase Fibre Channel communications ranges.

Tips for buyers
The full range of Fibre Channel storage and cabling products is so immense that it's practically impossible to put it all in one place. Here are five Web sites that can help with researching products:

  • EMF Associates, This is the Web site of Edward M. Frymoyer, a Fibre Channel analyst and expert. It contains links to books and newsletters containing useful information about Fibre Channel market growth and training.

  • European Laboratory for Particle Physics, spec/overview.htm. This group, known as CERN, has at its Web site an excellent introduction and overview of Fibre Channel technology and specifications.

  • Fibre Channel Association, FCA's mission is to promote Fibre Channel products through market development, education, standards monitoring and fostering interoperability among members' products. Since its inception, FCA has grown to encompass more than 150 members, including companies in the United States and affiliate organizations in Europe and Japan.

  • Fibre Channel Community, This organization, created in 1995, soon will merge with the Fibre Channel Association. Its site features numerous white papers and other study materials, almost all of which should be available after the merger.

  • Fibre Channel Group LLC, This is a company founded by Frymoyer and Brian Smith to educate people in all aspects of Fibre Channel and SAN technology, business, and marketing development. The company says it has trained more than 4,300 professionals.

Mark A. Kellner is a free-lance technology writer in Marina Del Rey, Calif. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

Ancor Communications Inc
Minnetonka, Minn.
MKII-16 Fibre
Channel Switch
SwitchProvides gigabit speed at all 16 ports; ports are auto-sensing and self-configuring, each offering easy fabric, loop or switch-to- switch connectivity; has hot-swappable components, including copper and optical media modules.Sold only
ATTO Technology Inc.
Amherst, N.Y.
ATTO FibreBridgeFibre Channel to
UltraSCSI bridge
Can attach any existing SCSI product to Fibre Channel; provides full-duplex 1.06-Gbps transfer rates tightly coupled with two independent 40-megabytes/sec channels for a combined throughput of 80 megabytes/sec$3,296
ATTO FibreCenterStackable hubServes as a high-speed central connection point for data sharing in Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL) configurations; stackable five-port hub provides1.06-Gbps performance with 200-megabytes/sec transfer rates for I/O and data intensive workgroup and enterprise environments$1,195
ATTO ExpressPCI FC PC, Macintosh
host adapter
Is a 64-bit PCI bus-to-Fibre Channel host adapter for servers, workgroups and workstations; drivers with multiple initiator support are available for Mac OS and Microsoft Windows NT $995
Brocade Communications
Systems Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
SilkWorm 2100 SwitchEight-port Fibre Channel Loop switch supports parallel transfer rates of 100 megabytes/sec at each port; upgradeable to full fabric supportNew product;
price not
Compaq Computer Corp.
Array 8000
Disk subsystemCan be rack- or pedestal-mounted; supports up to 1.3T of storage$68,000
Crossroads Systems Inc.
Austin, Texas
Crossroads 4200
Channel to SCSI
RouterHas one Fibre Channel port and two SCSI ports$7,995
Hewlett-Packard Co.
Palo Alto, Calif.
HHBA 5100AHost bus adaptersAre PCI short-card-form printed circuit boards with drivers for Microsoft Windows NT, Novell NetWare and SCO UnixWare$750
Vicom Systems Inc.
Mountain View, Calif.
SLIC Fibre Channel
storage routers
RoutersFeatures internal bandwidth of more than 5 gigabytes/sec$3,500
per port


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected