New Fibre Channel Standard Set for Liftoff

The draft standard of the new 2 Gbps Fibre Channel specification wasn't due to be unveiled until early this month, but that didn't stop a number of storage vendors from hopping on the next-generation storage protocol's bandwagon early.

According to proponents, 2 Gbps Fibre Channel will double the pipe of existing 1 Gbps Fibre Channel solutions while maintaining backward-compatibility with existing 1 Gbps-based solutions. Moreover, boosters maintain that 2 Gbps Fibre Channel could be a boon for storage area networks (SAN)

"Two Gbps Fibre Channel is designed to speak 1 Gbps Fibre Channel, so it's designed to allow for interoperability with older devices in the field, and because it is a standard, try to allow for compatibility between the various Fibre Channel components in a 2 Gbps infrastructure," explains Eric Herzog, vice president of marketing at IBM Corp.'s subsidiary and RAID specialist Mylex Corp. (www.mylex.com). "Two Gbps Fibre Channel can also be deployed in SANs in the way that 1 Gbps. So in a SAN configuration, all of the external components are going to be basically the same."

Two Gbps Fibre Channel will likely be a boon to vertical markets such as video editing, high-performance digital content creation and manipulation, and large data-processing environments.

Storage vendors, such as Quantum Corp. (www.quantum.com) and Seagate Technology Inc. (www.seagate.com), are expected to incorporate support for the new standard into their storage devices. SCSI and RAID host bus adapter (HBA) specialists -- such as Mylex, Adaptec Inc. (www.adaptec.com) and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP, www.hp.com) -- already committed to supporting 2 Gbps Fibre Channel by the end of the year.

Mylex will market 2 Gbps Fibre Channel solutions based on its eXtremeRAID family of HBAs; Adaptec will develop a series of Fibre Channel products based on HP subsidiary Agilent Technologies' (www.agilent.com) Tachyon Fibre Channel controller chip.

Fibre Channel and SANs have come into their own recently -- especially in the Windows NT/2000 market segments. IDC (www.idc.com) projects a 1,600 percent increase in demand for Windows NT-based or Windows 2000-based Fibre Channel HBAs between now and 2003.

Rob Enderle, senior analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. (www.gigaweb.com), says the demand is fueled by the insatiable need for faster pipes -- especially in performance-conscious environments.

"Right now these large-scale servers and SANs have bottlenecks, and the storage bus is one of them," Enderle explains. "So moving to a 2 Gbps Fibre technology allows those environments to relieve one of those bottlenecks and provide a higher level of service while maintaining compatibility with existing Fibre Channel devices."

Two Gbps Fibre Channel is not without its detractors. Proponents of Ultra160 SCSI -- a SCSI standard that purports to provide performance that approaches that of 2 Gbps Fibre Channel -- maintain that Ultra160 not only delivers acceptably fast performance, but also preserves backward-compatibility with the huge installed base of SCSI devices.

Mylex's Herzog says it is important that customers not get caught up in the war of words between advocates of either Ultra160 SCSI or 2 Gbps Fibre Channel. The IBM subsidiary manufactures Ultra160 SCSI RAID HBAs today and will market 2 Gbps Fibre Channel HBAs in the future. Herzog says that the choice of either 2 Gbps Fibre Channel or Ultra160 SCSI can and should be one's needs.

"Customers need to understand that they shouldn't get into a religious war about which one is better than the other," he comments. "These types of decisions should really be made on the basis of what your specific application is, because for certain applications Fibre Channel is much better than SCSI, and vice versa."

Giga's Enderle concurs, noting that most of the rhetoric in the 2 Gbps Fibre Channel vs. Ultra160 SCSI debate is found largely with vendors who have a stake in one technology and not the other.

"That's probably why it's important at this point to pick a vendor that markets products based on both technologies," he concludes, noting that companies like Mylex, Adaptec, and HP have mixed Ultra160 SCSI and 2 Gbps Fibre Channel strategies. "That way you'll get the best solution, and you'll not be trapped in a holy war pitting one side against the other."