4Gb--ready or not, here it comes


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Next year, 4Gb/sec Fibre Channel (FC) products will start to roll out. These products will double the performance of 2Gb/sec gear for the same price, although the earliest adopters will probably pay a small premium until the full economies of large-scale chip production kick in.

Although the buzz about 4Gb/sec FC has been spreading for several months, no IT users have yet had a chance to test the technology, which is still working its way through the storage vendors' engineering labs. "There is nothing available yet, and nobody is screaming for it," says Tony Asaro, senior analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, MA. Asaro, along with most industry analysts, has yet to see the technology demonstrated.

When it does arrive, 4Gb/sec FC's adoption should be a gradual, relatively painless process. IT managers may see little need for doubling FC performance now, but they should figure it into their plans as they consider refreshing their storage area network (SAN) technology in the future.

Fibre Channel roadmap

Performance improvement
The 4Gb/sec FC transition is the latest step in the inexorable improvement of performance, the FC equivalent of Moore's Law. FC networks have progressed from 1Gb/sec to 2Gb/sec, the current state of the art. Unlike

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the 10Gb/sec FC standard, which isn't backward compatible, new 4Gb/sec products will be completely backward (plug) compatible with 2Gb/sec and 1Gb/sec products, explains Skip Jones, chairman of the Fibre Channel Industry Association's (FCIA) speed forum and roadmap committee.

Backward compatibility will allow organizations to add 4Gb/sec products to environments still running older 1Gb/sec and 2Gb/sec devices without having to make any adjustments. "The 4Gb/sec products will autosense whether they are connecting with 2Gb/sec or 1Gb/sec products and ratchet down their speed to correspond," explains Charlie Kraus, director of marketing at LSI Logic Corp.'s host bus adapter (HBA) division. The same thing happened when the industry moved from 1Gb/sec to 2Gb/sec. Backward compatibility and autosensing ensured a gradual transition.

The 4Gb/sec action, however, isn't expected to heat up until 2005, although a few products might show up this year. At this point, "no products are shipping," says Richard Villars, vice president, storage systems at IDC, Framingham, MA. Instead, chips and test kits are going out to storage vendors for compatibility and interoperability testing. IDC expects it will take two years after products start shipping in 2005 for 4Gb/sec technology to reach 90% penetration.

Users haven't been clamoring for 4Gb/sec; the transition is being driven by the vendors' need to continue delivering improved price performance. "Disks don't saturate 2Gb/sec now, but they will eventually. The vendors need to have some headroom," says Kraus.

This was first published in November 2004

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