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EMC holds off on FICON support for mainframes

EMC said Symmetrix DMX would not support the FICON storage interface for mainframes but that the next Symmetrix release will. Some critics say it's a sign EMC is deserting the mainframe market. Others say the concern is unfounded.

Buried in the plethora of new product details EMC dished out Monday during the unveiling of its much-touted Symmetrix DMX series was the brief mention that the Hopkinton, Mass.-based storage company would not support the FICON storage interface for mainframes in this updated system.'s Rick Cook looks at mainframe connectivity:

FICON represents a major improvement over the older ESCON architecture for connecting storage to IBM-style mainframes. FICON offers higher throughput, more flexibility, more distance between devices and better scalability. All this is fine, but while FICON can be as much as six times more cost effective, converting a storage system from ESCON to FICON is still expensive.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to doing a "forklift upgrade" on your existing ESCON system. If you're experiencing very high rates in traffic growth over your storage network or if you need to connect multiple remote storage centers, you may well want to do a total replacement. If your needs are more moderate, there are a couple of money-saving strategies for integrating FICON into your enterprise.

One alternative is to use a FICON bridge on an existing ESCON installation. The bridge connects the existing ESCON director to a FICON adapter on the mainframe and gives the advantages of FICON between the mainframe and the director. Depending on the user profile, this can provide a significant improvement in performance without having to upgrade peripherals.

Another option is running both ESCON and FICON simultaneously by adding a FICON director to the system and migrating the fastest-growing and most performance-hungry parts of the storage system to FICON. This preserves the investment in ESCON and still gives the benefits of full FICON for the most critical parts of the system.

The Wellesley, Mass.-based Clipper Group has a paper discussing strategies for moving to FICON that is available at the Inrange Web site

Ken Steinhardt, EMC's director of technology analysis, said that, rather than supporting 1G bit/sec FICON in the DMX series, EMC will repackage the Symmetrix 8000 for mainframe environments.

"We're going to improve the economics of the 8000 series going forward," he said.

EMC said it will support 2G bit/sec FICON in the DMX series later this year.

The move has raised concern and criticism from some in the industry, who suggest EMC may drop support for the mainframe altogether.

One of EMC's chief competitors in the mainframe storage market said EMC has lost its edge.

"Their Symmetrix DMX series is limited to ESCON. If [2G bit/sec FICON] technology is there, why not bring it out today? They're walking away from the mainframe space," said Phil Townsend, senior director of worldwide marketing for Hitachi Data Systems. "Either [EMC] doesn't have it or they think it's going to go away, and they're buying themselves another six months to let that market play out."

However, Steinhardt said EMC believes the days of 1G bit/sec FICON are numbered and that the company is waiting for 2G bit/sec to become the de facto standard for connecting mainframes to storage. He said that, rather than rushing to market with a 1G bit/sec FICON-enabled Symmetrix DMX that would have a relatively short lifespan, the company is going to hold off and add 2G bit/sec connectivity to the DMX series later this year. The company has no intention of deserting the mainframe market, he said.

According to Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst with the Yankee Group Inc., Boston, implementing FICON plumbing is a long and arduous process. He also said that EMC users planning a FICON rollout can probably stand to wait until the DMX series supports 2G bit/sec.

"Most customers rolling out FICON can probably wait a little longer," Gruener said. Upshot: Not having 2G bit/sec FICON support in this new announcement isn't going to hurt EMC, as HDS suggests.

According to switch maker Inrange Technologies Corp., most FICON storage shipping today is 2G bit/sec, but that wasn't always the case.

"Unlike open system users, mainframe folks can understand the performance and will easily tell management why and when they need greater performance," said Dale Lafferty, vice president of marketing and alliances for Inrange Technologies. "Open systems [users] are never sure when they need 2G bit/sec and only buy it because they get it for the same price as 1G bit/sec. There isn't a ton of 1G bit/sec out there, so this is pretty much a moot point.

"FICON has continued to have huge momentum because of its inherent performance and distance benefits over ESCON and a director's ability to share between open and mainframe systems."

Users that are looking at FICON migration projects are planning for 2G bit/sec with the purchase of either 1G bit/sec- or 2G bit/sec-ready products. Generally, most of the storage vendors have 2G bit/sec products available today, he said.

"We don't believe that 1 to 2G bit/sec migration is occurring at a faster rate than FICON migration," Lafferty said. "Users are planning for 2G bit/sec with the purchase of 2G bit/sec or 2G bit/sec-ready systems, but FICON is really the driving force."

Last March, Hitachi Data Systems, Santa Clara, Calif., announced the general availability of FICON for the Hitachi Freedom Storage Lightning 9900 Series storage array. IBM was first to announce native FICON connectivity for its TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Server -- code named Shark -- and two models of its Virtual Tape Server (VTS) in late 2001.

Fibre connectivity provides peak data transfer rates almost six times faster than ESCON technology and also relieves constraints on storage configurations, because it supports disk storage configurations up to six times larger than with ESCON. Let us know what you think about the story. E-mail Kevin Komiega, News Writer


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