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Big future for Fibre Channel

The obscure interconnection technology is poised to become widely used in fast, centralized storage systems.

Fibre Channel, an interconnection technology that's been waiting in the wings for several years, is poised to become widely used in the next few years as customers are increasingly clamoring for fast, reliable, and centralized storage systems.

Fibre Channel technology should be a $15 billion-a-year business by 2002, said Robert Gray, an analyst with International Data Corporation and the author of a new IDC study on storage systems. And, while established storage companies will take a significant portion of the market, the specialized nature of the technology will open doors for raft of hitherto unknown companies.

The basis for the new technology's predicted popularity comes from an expected growth in storage sales driven by big businesses. As businesses invest more in storage, they will need better ways to connect storage banks to servers. Fibre channel is well-suited to the needs of corporate information technology managers who want to build centralized "storage networks" as a way to keep their ever-larger storage systems manageable, he said.

Fibre Channel storage systems would replace current storage systems by plugging servers into a separate Fibre Channel line that leads to hard disk arrays. Such a system is faster because it removes the data transfer burden from the primary network and because Fibre Channel is faster than current connection technologies such as SCSI.

While Fibre Channel has some good features, Gray said it's suffered from being "over ambitiously overhyped." When it was first announced, "It wasn't ready."

Now, though, Fibre Channel is finding customers in people desperate for high-performance storage such as the video animation companies.

The next adopters will be the big corporations whose information technology managers want to be able to manage their storage systems even when their budgets don't grow anywhere near as fast as the amount of data they have to manage.

"The more disk prices decline, the more you need Fibre Channel. It gives you more capacity to manage" your storage, Gray said.

After it becomes more widespread in big business, Fibre Channel will become less expensive, and smaller businesses will begin adopting it. Eventually, the technology will show up on desktops for computer users who need the fastest system performance they can find, Gray believes.

Why does IDC think Fibre Channel will be used in 50 percent of the external storage market?

  • It's faster than SCSI, with 100 MB/sec throughput available now and upgrades to 200 MB/sec and 400 MB/sec in the works.

  • It's cheaper than the proprietary storage networks sold today to companies desiring centralized storage.

  • It's robust as well, with two independent paths to the disk drives that will allow the disk to communicate even if one channel stops working. And it lets as many as 126 devices as far as 10 kilometers apart be attached to the same Fibre Channel loop.

    Meanwhile, the Fibre Channel hardware is becoming more common.

    "Seagate currently is the only Fibre Channel drive volume supplier," Gray said, but he expects almost all high-end drive manufacturers to jump on board. "IBM is going to get some big business in this. They're really coming on strong in the high-end drives," he said.

    But the rest of the Fibre Channel hardware is made by some "new players," Gray said. Among them: QLogic, which makes host bus adapters, Gadzoox, which makes Fibre Channel hubs, Brocade, which makes Fibre Channel switches, and Atto Technology, which makes bridges that allow SCSI devices to be plugged into Fibre Channel loops.

    Fibre Channel does have some competing high-speed connection technologies, such as Ultra2 SCSI and Ultra3 SCSI, Gray said. And IBM has its own idea, serial storage architecture (SSA).

    And in the longer term, there's Intel's next generation input/output (NGIO) specification. "It's a serious competitor, but it's several years down the road," Gray said. "By that time, Fibre Channel costs will have come down dramatically."