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HBA pricing still a bit mysterious, analysts say

Emulex and QLogic have dropped HBA prices at last, but their reasons for maintaining the high price of the older products is still murky

When EMC made a big splash with its new low-cost Fibre Channel storage array Wednesday, Emulex and QLogic took the opportunity to slip out their long-awaited sub-$500 HBAs. But how these two vendors reached this lower price tag is raising a few eyebrows among analysts.

Host bus adapters have been expensive since their inception and kept so artificially, according to analysts, because of the lack of competition in this sector. This has changed with the introduction of iSCSI, which has begun to get traction in the small to medium-sized business (SMB) market and is forcing these vendors to come up with competing products.

Emulex Corp, of Costa Mesa, Calif., has countered with its new Fibre Channel-based LP101 that is aimed at the SMB market, which it believes doesn't have the same requirements as the enterprise market. As a result, the company has stripped away most of the sophisticated functionality built into its LP10000 enterprise cards and relaxed the specification requirements on its component vendors, in order to charge less for the new product.

This means the LP101 doesn't provide detailed tuning tools to set parameters for things like time-outs, which allow the user to specify how long the HBA waits before checking for a response from the other side of the link. The high-end cards have up to 80 different parameters that can be changed to suit certain environments, the company said. "SMBs have a smaller set of equipment; they don't need the flexibility to deal with old equipment," said an Emulex spokesman.

He added that their performance needs aren't as high, either. Consequently, the LP101 can only process 20,000 input/output per second (IOPS), whereas the enterprise cards offer from 50,000 IOPS to 70,000 IOPS. The distance to support optical cabling has been cut, too, from 300 meters on the enterprise card to 50 meters on the LP101.

Emulex claims that enabling support for these high-end features across a wider range of equipment costs the company more, which is why the enterprise cards are closer to $1,000. "We have to support more third-party software, which drives a different cost structure," said the Emulex spokesman. By third-party software, he means operating systems.

Right now the LP101 supports Windows and Linux, whereas the LP10000 supports Windows, Linux, Netware, HP-UX, AIX, Solaris and other customized driver support like FICON.

Analysts seem to agree that this argument doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Arun Taneja, founder of The Taneja Group, said that support for more operating systems does "not equate to doubling the price."

John Webster, senior analyst and partner of The Data Mobility Group LLC, agrees that Emulex's argument doesn't make much sense. "I can see their point in ramp-up mode, but once the product has been on the market a while, this cost is at least slightly reduced," he said. Webster said he believes the HBA vendors may have kept their prices "artificially high" to hasten along the iSCSI market. "I think that's where they see the volume opportunity."

Emulex has, in fact, produced an iSCSI HBA that is currently being qualified by OEMs. "We don't see a compelling need for this in the market yet," the spokesman said.

John McArthur, group vice president of worldwide storage research at IDC Corp., notes that over time users will want support for more than two operating systems on these cheaper cards. "Emulex will have to qualify additional vendors, but it won't be able to put the cost up. … The trend is clear that over time, HBA prices across the board will come down," he said.

Taneja goes as far as to say that there will be "a collapse" in this market as the technology is commoditized.

QLogic offered a reason why this won't happen. "People tend to trivialize what goes into the design and software for an HBA … our SMB card was two years in development," said a company spokesman.

He added that right now there are only 2 Gb/s products on the market, but when 4 Gb/s and 10 Gb/s cards hit the shelves, he said there will be more opportunity to differentiate between the enterprise cards and their SMB sidekicks.

For more information:

EMC draws battle line with iSCSI

Emulex predicts sub$500 HBAs on the way

Dig Deeper on SAN technology and arrays

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