Fibre Channel Interoperability Testing Arrives
Fibre Channel technology holds great promise, but like other new technologies, it is still struggling to overcome early interoperability problems.
The Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop Community (FCLC, www.fcloop.org), a nonprofit vendor-sponsored advocacy organization, recently completed its fourth round of Fibre Channel interoperability testing and published a report that indicates, among other conclusions, that interoperability among Fibre Channel-based solutions is on a upswing.
Fibre Channel has been highly touted as an interconnect solution for use in many implementations, but is most popularly viewed as the interconnect of choice in next-generation storage architectures such as storage-area networks (SAN).
"Fibre Channel is really key to the evolution of the SAN environment," agrees Erik Norlander, director of marketing with the network systems group of storage vendor Storage Technology Corp. (Louisville, Colo., www.storagetek.com). "With Fibre Channel, we have the ability to extend the connection between the storage and the server substantially [over existing SCSI-based solutions], because the distance of a Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop can extend up to 10,000 meters and is 2 1/2 times faster than SCSI."
Fibre Channel does not yet enjoy the plug-and-play compatibility of an existing interconnect standard such as SCSI. However, in the burgeoning SAN environment, many vendors fear that the acceptance of Fibre Channel solutions could be stymied by concerns of interoperability problems among competing products. Consequently, the FCLC has made Fibre Channel interoperability testing and certification a major part of its agenda, and in 1997, the FCLC initiated a testing program to ensure interoperability among Fibre Channel products from any number of different vendors.
The FCLC says that the purpose of its Fibre Channel interoperability testing is to isolate vendor-specific product or implementation anomalies that may affect multivendor Fibre Channel configurations. But the FCLC’s most recent round of testing, which wrapped up in late July, focused additionally on the interoperability of different Fibre Channel solutions in SAN environments.
"We believe that interoperability testing is an absolutely critical element in bringing Fibre Channel products and solutions to the market," says Mike Fitzpatrick, chairman of the FCLC.
According to the FCLC, the latest round of interoperability testing demonstrated that Fibre Channel is advancing in maturity, and the organization contends that wide-scale adoption of Fibre Channel technology is imminent, both in SANs and in other mission-critical environments where interoperability among products is a necessary. The FCLC also indicated that the July tests provided an "industry first" of sorts in that multiple Fibre Channel drives from a number of different manufacturers were simultaneously used in test scenarios. The tests were also successful in generating a stable Fibre Channel network that maintained its integrity as various vendors’ equipment was introduced and removed from the configuration.
Jeff Vogel, vice president of marketing and business relations with Fibre Channel hub and switch vendor Vixel Corp. (Bothell, Wash., www.vixel.com), observes that interoperability is a big concern for most customers looking into SAN solutions based on Fibre Channel technologies. "Customers want the flexibility to buy their solutions from whomever they want to buy them from, and they want to be able to understand the value proposition that these different products bring to the table, without having to worry about whether one company’s product will work with another’s," says Vogel.
While the July tests were promising, even FCLC chairman Fitzpatrick stops short of a full-blown endorsement of Fibre Channel interoperability. "While it would be premature to say that a network manager could build an enterprise solution utilizing any mix-and-match of Fibre Channel equipment, it is safe to say that enough Fibre Channel equipment has achieved interoperability so that single-vendor installations are no longer necessary to build reliable, open systems Fibre Channel implementations," Fitzpatrick affirms.