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Fibre committee guarantees users more speed

The FCIA has approved 8 Gbps Fibre Channel, but are they going too fast?

Last April, The Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA) approved an 8 Gbps standard for disk drives. Yesterday, it was time to extend that speed to the fabric and the committee approved 8 again -- unanimously.

While the FCIA made it clear that 8 Gbps Fibre Channel (FC) products will not be available until at least 2007, FCIA Speed Forum chairman Skip Jones said the announcement serves as a heads up to users so they can plan a smooth migration to more speed as soon as it becomes available.

Since most companies use 1 or 2 Gbps, and 4 Gbps is on its way next year, it certainly helps that 8 Gbps is backward compatible with all these speeds. "What we're saying with this announcement is that 8 Gbps will be easy to migrate to in three or four years," said Jones.

When that time comes, users will be able to preserve their 2 Gbps and 4 Gbps infrastructure investments and avoid an expensive "fork lift" replacement. And they will be able to do so automatically. The "auto-negotiation" feature of Fibre Channel enables 8 Gbps FC products to automatically adapt to the data rate capability of lower speed FC without user intervention.

But the question looms: Why not go right to 10 gig? According to Jones, who is also an executive at QLogic Corp., Aliso Viejo, Calif., 10 Gbps FC is only used in big shops as an inter-switch link (ISL). "Plus, 10 gig is not compatible with anything," he said.

"We're not pooping on 10 gig, but no one will pay for optical 10 gig. It works better connecting switches at short distances," he added.

But legitimizing 8 Gbps both "inside the box" and in the fabric could be seen as a way to cement Fibre Channel's future in the face of increasing competition from IP SAN technology. An analyst report released by Thomas Weisel Partners recently made that very conclusion about 4 Gbps FC, due in 2005 -- two or three years before 8 Gbps will hit.

Referring to the forthcoming release of 4 Gbps, the report said, "We view these innovations as improvements designed to further entrench existing technology and market positions rather than innovations designed to capture entirely new markets."

Richard Villars, vice president of Storage Systems at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., said the 8 Gbps FC announcement will help companies make better decisions about their storage environment. "This roadmap reflects a sensitivity to the importance of investment protection of storage area networks (SANs)," he said.

Jones admits that most companies only need 1 Gbps FC right now. But the FCIA prides itself on staying ahead of the game. "Some of the more anxious vendors will start pushing 8 gig in 2006," Jones said. "But that would be too early."

The FCIA is a non-profit organization made up of marketing executives, engineers, developers and architects from a variety of vendors. Their goal is to set industry standards and provide a roadmap for future Fibre Channel migration.

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