QLogic Is King of the Fibre Channel HBA Market

The SAN market changes on a daily basis. New standards, switching devices, software, and applications emerge continuously, but little attention is paid to the fundamental hardware that makes SANs possible: the Fibre Channel host bus adapter.

Fibre Channel host bus adapters connect storage devices to servers, translating the Fibre Channel protocol to the server through a PCI slot. Like a SCSI controller, the adapter is necessary for the storage device to work on the network.

The host bus adapter shares another similarity with the SCSI controller: a similar protocol. Because the SCSI protocol is limited in the distance it can travel, the Fibre Channel protocol takes the information carried on the parallel SCSI protocol and creates a similar, serial transmission.

According to statistics from market watcher IDC (www.idc.com), QLogic Corp. (www.qlogic.com) is the leading vendor of host bus adapters by volume, partly due to its extensive partnerships with SAN OEMs. But the company is not resting on its laurels. QLogic continues to announce new partnerships with vendors such as EMC Corp. (www.emc.com), Quantum Corp. (www.quantum.com), Sun Microsystems Inc. (www.sun.com), and Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek, www.storagetek.com).

EMC will use QLogic’s host bus adapter in its new Clariion series of storage arrays. Quantum adopted the adapter for its SAN ready tape libraries, and Sun recently announced that its Fibre Channel tape drive will use QLogic’s adapter. Clearly, QLogic is widely accepted throughout the SAN world.

QLogic was not the first company to offer a Fibre Channel host bus adapter, but it introduced a single chip host bus adapter that was attractive to SAN OEMs for both its price and its compatibility. "We have a very strong OEM focus," says Laura Raven, vice president at QLogic.

In addition to courting OEMs, QLogic pays close attention to the enterprise, offering drivers for Windows NT and Solaris. Its competitors are focused primarily on obscure, high-end operating systems for mainframes. QLogic, in fact, created drivers for Windows 95 and Windows 98 to ensure that nearly all enterprises would be able to take advantage of its gear.

Now that SANs have begun to accumulate a sizable installed base, QLogic is beginning to feel the need to sell its products as point solutions. "We’ve just recently entered the [reseller] channel," Raven says. As QLogic improves its adapters, administrators can upgrade their components to keep up with technological advances.

When OEMs decide to adopt a host bus adapter, they run vendors’ products through the paces to decide which product best suits their needs. While an OEM may have a relationship with one vendor, it is in the company’s best interest to use the best product for its needs. Up to this point, QLogic consistently came out on top for most solutions.

Robert Gray, director of storage research at IDC, sees a potential threat to QLogic’s supremacy in the adapter space, however. Leading vendors of SCSI adapters are beginning to diversify into the host bus adapter space, creating competition for QLogic at the same price point.

In addition, 2 Gb Fibre Channel is emerging, and will induce OEMs to reassess their adapter relationships. As vendors roll out 2 Gb solutions, they will evaluate the offerings from all vendors, making the contracts anyone’s game. "Two Gb is going to be fun," Gray says.