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More backing for Fibre Channel

Many firms are deciding they need more fiber and have turned to an emerging interconnection technology.

More and more companies are deciding that fiber is good for you.

Or more accurately, Fibre Channel, an emerging network technology for linking servers to storage systems that moves data more efficiently than existing network pipes.

Several companies, including computer giant Compaq Computer, storage system company EMC, corporate computer company Data General, and network hardware maker 3Com made announcements this week that bolster Fibre Channel's future.

Analysts predict a big future for the technology. They say it's poised to become widely used in the next few years as customers are increasingly clamoring for fast, reliable, and centralized storage systems. (See related story.)

Dell Computer said today it will start offering in mid-1999 Network Appliance "filers," special-purpose high-availability file servers that run high-speed storage systems connected via Fibre Channel. The filers, which can be used with both Unix and Windows systems, will be offered in conjunction with Dell's high-end PowerVault storage line.

"The two companies together can accelerate market acceptance for network attached storage," said Mike Lambert of Dell's Enterprise Systems Group.

Fibre Channel is well-suited to companies that want to build "storage area networks" (SANs). In storage area networks, hard disk and tape storage devices live in their own network that is separate from the company's main business servers. Fibre Channel then connects the storage bank to the main server units.

A recent survey by Find/SVP conducted for EMC, found that 93 percent of the information services executives interviewed "are centralizing the information in their data centers, rather than allowing it to be dispersed throughout their companies."

Revenue from Windows NT-based storage sales across the industry should increase from less than $1 billion in 1997 to more than $13 billion in 2001, according to Morgan Stanley Dean Witter analyst Gillian Munson.

Fibre Channel, which consists of either copper or fiber-optic cables, can connect devices as far as 10 kilometers apart. It's fast, reaching speeds of 100MB/sec right now, and it's got two data paths to provide redundant connections.

Compaq said Monday it will offer equipment that will let people connect tape backup systems to NT server banks via a Fibre Channel loop. This will ease the lives of storage managers who need to back up their system without bogging down the existing network, said Kirby Wadsworth, vice president for marketing at Compaq's Storage Products Division.

Currently, tape backup often clogs corporate networks, restricting backup to an ever-smaller window of time, Wadsworth said. But with increasing amounts of stored data, it's harder to get the job done. Adding a separate Fibre Channel offloads this backup burden, he said. And Fibre Channel, unlike Ethernet networking technology, is well-suited to transferring large blocks of data.

EMC is offering VolumeLogix software to coordinate how Windows NT servers access different storage banks via Fibre Channel. The company's products also can plug into Fibre Channel hubs for Windows NT and Unix environments.

For 1998, EMC is expected to reap $416 million in revenue from its software sales, said Munson. In addition, EMC shipped $200 million in Fibre Channel storage products in the third quarter of 1998, an 18 percent increase over the previous year.

Meanwhile, Data General and 3Com announced an alliance to improve the collective offerings for their NT-based Fibre Channel products. As part of the deal, Data General's Clariion storage products will be used in 3Com's StorageConnect storage area network program.

Data General's Clariion division could be its salvation. The company reported serious losses for its most recent fiscal year, but reported a surprise fourth-quarter profit this month after shifting manpower to the Clariion division. A total of 40 percent of Clariion's revenue comes from Fibre Channel products.