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Fibre Channel storage alive and kicking

It's not the end of the world for Fibre Channel storage; market research from a variety of industry analysts indicates widespread use and a slow decline.

Reports of the death of Fibre Channel have resurfaced, but once again, the dire proclamations appear to be an exaggeration. Market research suggests only that the storage interconnect is heading for a slow downtrend, not the technology graveyard.

Dell'Oro Group, a market research firm that tracks storage networking, forecasts an average annual decrease through 2019 of 3% in Fibre Channel (FC) switch ports and 7% to 8% in the FC ports on host bus adapters (HBAs), which provide connectivity and I/O processing between servers and storage.

Crehan Research Inc., projects an average reduction of 5% per year through 2019 in shipments of both FC switch and HBA ports, on the heels of a 2% actual drop from 2008 through 2014.

"Fibre Channel has a large installed base, and it's seeing a gradual decline," said Seamus Crehan, president of the research company. "It's not falling off a cliff."

FC switch revenue grew, from $1.8 to $1.9 billion, from 2013 to 2014, despite the FC switch port decline from 5.9 to 5.8 million, according to Crehan. He said users moved to 16 Gigabit per second (Gbps) FC technology, and the newer switches carried a relatively small price premium over the older 8 Gbps FC.

FC used for mission-critical apps

Many enterprises remain committed to FC storage networking for mission-critical workloads. Martin Littmann, CTO at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston, said his organization plans to increase its use of "proven" Fibre Channel technology. Kelsey-Seybold's storage networking consists of FC for storage arrays, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) from the host servers to top-of-rack switches, and some InfiniBand.

Dean Flanders, head of informatics at Friedrich Miescher Institute (FMI) for Biomedical Research in Basel, Switzerland, said his organization got burned badly when trying out iSCSI several years ago and has stuck with FC ever since.

Flanders said FC may lack some reusability for networking purposes other than storage, and require in-house expertise, but he likes the fact that FC was purpose-built for data storage, doesn't drop data packets and offers Linux drivers that have been around for more than a decade.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Flanders wrote in an email. "There is a big difference between theory and practice, and in practice, FC works."

Flanders said he could foresee a gradual move to more Internet Protocol (IP)-based object storage, potentially leading to smaller pools of FC storage. But, he said an ultra-reliable FC SAN would still make sense, especially for the virtual machine infrastructure.

Fibre Channel units sold

Why the FC unit shipment decline?

FC has long been a prime choice for enterprises in need of a high-speed interconnect for SANs, but the landscape started to shift with the introduction of iSCSI storage more than 10 years ago.

Ethernet networking gained acceptance for block storage and became popular for file, and later cloud-based, object storage for a variety of reasons. It costs less, requires no dedicated switching and special training, and offers adequate performance for most business applications.

Sergis Mushell, a research director at Gartner, said FC unit shipments are declining because of the changing nature of the data that organizations save. He said they keep more unstructured data, and much of the exponentially growing data is not important enough to require highly resilient FC SANs.

"You store the data based on the perceived value of the data," said Mushell. "You don't put a YouTube video on the most expensive storage platform."

Still, Mushell predicted the FC unit decline would remain in single digits for at least the next three to five years. He said storage technologies "can be on a deathbed for a long time," pointing to tape and optical drives as examples.

"All practical storage technologies have a very long tail. It goes down to some number, and then that number will continue for several years possibly, because here's the thing: You have data stored on that technology. You have infrastructure," said Mushell. "So, you're going to use it as long as you can."

'Challenge is finding growth'

New York-based 451 Research LLC conducted interviews this year with 247 large and medium-sized enterprises, and the results showed FC's footprint remains significant. The vast majority (83%) use fabric or director-class FC switches in production.

"The challenge is finding growth," wrote Marco Coulter, vice president of storage customer insight at 451 Research, in an email. He noted that only four respondents without FC deployed in production today indicated plans to introduce it.

Among a subset of 82 enterprises that discussed storage strategy, the 67% using an FC SAN viewed it as strategic over the next five years and 40% of that group said any alternative would need to offer better performance at a lower cost to supplant it. Yet iSCSI was the top alternative for 39% who didn't view an FC SAN as strategic, and FCoE was next, at 17%.

"Storage in enterprises is going through dramatic architectural changes driven by flash, cloud and hyper-convergence," Coulter concluded. "In the midst of this chaos, FC SAN sits as a strategic technology already in use but not the technology of choice for greenfield deployments."

Flash storage gives FC a kick

FC has gotten a boost from flash storage. In a TechTarget survey earlier this year, eight of 11 storage vendors said the majority of their enterprise customers use FC switches and adapters with their all-flash arrays and hybrid storage systems, which combine solid-state and hard-disk drives.

Nimble Storage, which specializes in hybrid arrays, saw a need to introduce FC networking last year after initially supporting only iSCSI in its SAN products. The startup wanted to expand its market base to enterprises after originally focusing on higher-end, small and medium-sized businesses.

EMC and Hewlett-Packard said flash has spurred upgrades to 16 Gbps FC in many cases. Nearly half the FC switch ports shipped last year were 16 Gbps, and 16 Gbps HBAs started to ramp up this year, according to Crehan. He said that adoption has been faster for switches because of inter-switch links, where the bandwidth demand is greater.

From 2013 to 2014, FC HBA ports declined from 3 million to 2.8 million, as HBA revenue fell from $570 million to $537 million, according to Crehan.

FC ports shipped in 2014 by speed

Jeff Hoogenboom, vice president and general manager of Avago Technologies' Emulex Connectivity Division, one of the two major HBA vendors, attributed the slowing of the FC market to the decline of Unix servers.

But, Hoogenboom said flash, the transition to 16 Gbps and market growth in regions such as China are reinvigorating FC. He claimed the SAN-attached rate for FC HBAs and FCoE converged network adapters (CNAs) grew 2% from 2013 to 2014, with a slight decline for the HBAs and slight increase for the newer CNAs.

Future of FC technology

At this point, FC shows no signs of hitting the end of the technology innovation road. The major FC switch makers, Brocade Communications Systems and Cisco Systems, and HBA vendors, QLogic and Avago's Emulex division, all confirmed they are working on next-generation products that promise to double the data transfer rate to 32 Gbps.

"Cisco's philosophy is to invest in multiprotocol storage networking, and toward that end, there's a class of applications such as databases and [Microsoft] Exchange that require high-transaction I/O processing," said Nitin Garg, a senior manager of product management in Cisco's data center and enterprise switching group. "It's for this class of applications that customers have deployed Fibre Channel in the past, and we expect that customers will continue to deploy Fibre Channel for the foreseeable future."

Brocade, typically the first switch vendor to support new FC technology, expects to start shipping 32 Gbps products in 2016, according to Scott Shimomura, a director of product marketing.

Nothing ever dies in storage, but Fibre Channel's on the watch list.
Marc Staimerpresident, Dragon Slayer Consulting

He noted the latest Gen 6 FC standard also provides an option for 128 Gbps FC, mapping four lanes of 32 Gbps FC onto a single cable and optical transceiver to enable customers to aggregate traffic. He said Brocade expects to ship 128 Gbps switches in 2017. The use of 128 Gbps FC will require users to shift to quad small form-factor pluggable (QSFP) transceivers from the SFP+ optics used with 16 and 32 Gbps FC, he added.

Shimomura said he has heard reports about the impending death of Fibre Channel since 2000, just three years after the introduction of the first FC products. He said the naysayers tend to resurface just before a new FC generation is ready to hit the market.

"Every time they've predicted the death, the opposite's been true. We had record years all the way up until probably a year or two ago, when we saw a flattening."

For the most recent fiscal quarter, ending on May 2, Brocade reported SAN product revenue of $314 million, down 2% over the same quarter in 2014. The company blamed the decline on softer storage demand and operational issues at certain OEM partners. Meanwhile, Brocade's IP Networking product revenue was up 19% over the same quarter last year, to $145 million.

Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting, said he foresees FC SANs being relegated to niche status within 10 years, in use only in places where IT organizations are slow to change.

"There are only two Fibre Channel switch vendors left, and there are only two HBA vendors left. That tells you it's a non-growth market," said Staimer. "Nothing ever dies in storage, but Fibre Channel's on the watch list."

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