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4 Gb/s FC: Why Bother?

Users at SNW couldn't foresee a reason to move to 4 Gb/s FC networks when they are barely touching the capabilities of their 2 Gig gear.

PHOENIX -- "To heck with 4 Gig Fibre Channel, we'll wait for 10 Gig," says Lynn Neal, senior systems integrator at Sprint. And it seems she's not the only one.

End users here at Storage Networking World are very clear about their feelings on 4 Gb/s Fibre Channel networks: They don't need them. At least not for the foreseeable future anyway.

"We're not even utilizing 2 Gig today and we have a petabyte of storage and 2,000 SAN switch ports," Lynn boasts.

Rick Faszold, technical services manager at St Anthony's Medical Center, a mid-size metropolitan hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, says he's not interested in 4 Gb/s either as there are no applications that can take advantage of it yet. "Maybe when nurses are running around with tablet computers and all clinical documentation is online it might be necessary," he says.

Still, the vendors are throwing it out there as demos from Seagate, Emulex and Xyratech at the show prove. The craze for 4 Gb/s FC was actually started by the drive manufacturers who decided that 10 Gb/s speeds didn't make sense all the way to the drive.

Regardless of performance capabilities, the switch vendors say there will be a cost incentive that will make it an inevitable purchase. "The economic incentive to switch to 4 Gig will be like the move from 1 to 2 Gig…If a 4 Gig port costs the same or a bit more than 2 Gig it's a no-brainer," says Patrick Harr, VP of director platforms at McData. The company says it will offer 4 Gb/s FC support on its Sphereon in the first quarter of 2005.

What about integration with 2 Gb/s switches? Will storage managers have to go through the same nightmare swapping to 4 Gb/s Fibre Channel as they did to 2 Gb/s?

"Theoretically, it should be slightly easier," explains Derek Granath, director of product management at Brocade as there's backwards compatibility from 2 to 4 Gb/s FC which there wasn't between 1 and 2. He says from1 to 2 gigabit FC customers had to cut the cable on the switch and use a dongle to attach to the newly designed 2 Gig FC GBIC (Gigabit Interface Connector). Thankfully, 4 Gig uses the same form factor interfaces as 2 Gig so it should simply be a case of plugging the new cable directly into the switch.

Conversely, upgrading to 10 Gb/s Fibre Channel will be extremely expensive and disruptive as it requires entirely new connectors and different coding. For this reason vendors think 4 Gb/s Fibre Channel might end up getting a longer play than people think.

Unless of course, customers decide to ditch Fibre Channel altogether and buy 10 Gb/s Ethernet. Scotty Logan, senior architect of technology strategy and support at Stanford University thinks this isn't out of the question. "Putting in 10 Gig Ethernet with RDMA will be just as disruptive as 10 Gig Fibre Channel, it's clearly an opportunity to change," he says.


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