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New protocol to bridge gap for FC users

A standard is being developed that will let FC communicate directly with SATA drives, saving users money.

The ANSI T11 Technical Committee approved a submission this week for a new protocol that would connect Fibre Channel (FC) devices directly to SATA disk drives without the need for bridging technology -- a potential cost boon for users looking to implement tiered storage systems.

The publication of a formal standard is slated for a year from now, according to Robert Snively, principal engineer in the technology and standards group of Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and chair of the International Committee on Information Technology Standards (INCITS) Technical Committee, which will be developing the standard.

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Prototype products using the new FC-SATA protocol, however, are expected by the end of the year, Snively said. "People typically begin to implement something as soon as it shows signs of stability." He said he expects INCITS to be attending "plugfests" with developers to test their prototypes in the early months of 2006.

With the development of the new protocol, users may no longer have to invest between $400 and $500 per disk enclosure on patches and chips to allow their FC devices to speak to SATA disk arrays.

For many, according to Emulex Corp., which spearheaded the submission effort, this may be the deciding factor in keeping their FC systems at all as serial-attached SCSI (SAS) technology becomes available, and touted over FC precisely because of its connectivity with SATA arrays.

"There are lots of installed FC storage infrastructures today. It's been out there for nearly a decade," according to Tom Hammond-Doel, Director of Technical Marketing for Emulex, as well as a board member of The Fibre Channel Industry Association. "But customers are now looking at SAS as the next vehicle for storage system back ends to get access to SATA drives, which would require a forklift upgrade to their data centers.

"What we're essentially saying is, instead of throwing out all their investments, they can do that with FC."

In addition, the extension of the protocol may even have implications for users who don't yet have networked storage. "There are still a whole bunch of people out there with direct-attached storage [DAS] who really could benefit from networked storage," said Brian Garrett, senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group. "And there are two ways to get there from here -- with SCSI, or the commoditization of FC with SATA."

Saving FC

According to industry players and analysts, this new protocol may be how FC saves its own hide in the small to midrange sector of the storage market.

"It's a strategic response to the likely emergence of SAS as competition against affordable and simple Fibre Channel solutions," Garrett said.

Pete Seege, senior marketing manager for Seagate Technology LLC, which has both SATA and FC drives coming out on the market, said it gives FC a lot of the same flexibility that people are getting excited about with SAS.

According to Hammond-Doel at Emulex, SAS will still have a prominent place in storage no matter what developments occur with FC -- on the server side of storage infrastructure. "Right now there is interest in the external storage system market toward SAS where Fibre Channel is pervasive today, and we said 'no, wait a minute, there's a better way'," he said. "We do believe that in the future, SAS will be pervasive within the server."

Countered Taneja, founder and consulting analyst for the Taneja Group, "if [Emulex] had their druthers, SAS would only be used for internal storage in servers. But it's not going to be a black and white world -- we are going to find SAS outside of the server as well, and they're going to have to tussle it out."

Meanwhile, however, Greg Shultz, senior analyst with the Evaluator Group, pointed out that while a true means of connecting FC with SATA drives would be a good thing, users shouldn't stop looking at SAS just yet.

"In some ways, it might not mean anything," Shultz said. "Just because a standard is ratified, that doesn't mean it's going to become a success. You can go the other way and have success without a standard. It's a good move for T11 to ratify, but I would now look to the industry to really adopt it."

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