4Gb/s Storage Systems: When Should I Plan for Them?

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In the storage networking industry technology migration to next-generation solutions is a pervasive theme. Out with the old, in with the new, as vendors are constantly refreshing technology, while users anticipate worthwhile changes and proceed with optimism.

By Steve Gardner

Recently, the storage industry witnessed the introduction of the 4Gb/s Fibre Channel storage system. The development of the 4Gb/s system is part of the natural evolution of the storage industry. Storage vendors regularly improve their technology and make better, faster and less expensive solutions available to the marketplace. Storage buyers have anticipated 4Gb/s technology for months and are simultaneously evaluating these new offerings while wondering where does 4Gb/s fit?

The first customers to adopt 4Gb/s technology will be those in the High Performance Computing (HPC) market. These are customers who need to move large volumes of data quickly and frequently. The HPC category includes government research labs, seismic research, oil and gas, entertainment and scientific research centers. 4Gb/s technology will allow these customers to move their vast amounts of data off the storage systems onto the servers and run more queries in less time.

As the HPC users understand, 4Gb/s Fibre Channel technology will provide nearly twice the throughput through a single channel as the current 2Gb/s technology. The reduction in throughput time can have a corresponding reduction in the time necessary to perform functions such as disk-to-disk backup, restore, moving volumes to tiered storage, and campus-wide mirroring.

Data consolidation and the ability to better manage workloads are also both greatly enhanced by 4Gb/s technology. Networking storage systems and consolidating data from more servers onto fewer storage systems saves money through improved utilization. The benefits of storage consolidation are well understood. The combination of 4Gb/s technology to improve the interconnection speed coupled with larger and more powerful storage systems allows larger consolidations reducing the number of storage systems required.

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How long will the transition from 2Gb/s to 4Gb/s take? To make an estimate, we can look at the previous transition from 1Gb/s to 2Gb/s. According to a 2003 IDC report, 2Gb/s Fibre Channel accounted for only six percent of the market in 2001, but by the end of 2002, 2Gb/s was 70 percent of the market. IDC also predicted that by the end of 2003, virtually no 1Gb/s technology would be sold. The transition from 1Gb/s to 2Gb/s was simple and fast because it offered backward compatibility, no infrastructure change, and pricing was equal. The adoption of 4Gb/s technology is likely to follow a similar pattern, because it has the same benefits, backward compatibility, no infrastructure changes, and equal pricing. Since the industry has made this type of transition once before, we have learned quite a bit, which should make the transition to 4Gb/s even faster. 4Gb/s Fibre Channel should be the dominant host interconnection for storage systems by December 2006.

In February, when 4Gb/s Fibre Channel was introduced, prices were approximately the same as 2Gb/s technology. The value proposition for end-users is simple – equal cost; twice the throughput; less SAN infrastructure (fewer switches with fewer ports, fewer host bus adapters); increased reliability, availability and serviceability (RAS). 4Gb/s Fibre Channel is able to provide better RAS because there are fewer components, thus fewer points of failure.

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As 4Gb/s Fibre Channel becomes more widely available from suppliers, the General Purpose Computing (GPC) market will likely also adopt the technology. GPC customers that could benefit immediately from 4Gb/s Fibre Channel, include those seeking faster restores, content providers that stream video on demand; medical professionals who exchange images, send data over great distances or save large numbers of patient files; and organizations conducting data mining and data warehousing; as well as those that have implemented RFID technology or move large amounts of data on a regular basis.

Users who plan to adopt 4Gb/s technology should choose a vendor with whom they are comfortable working. Customers should closely examine the interoperability/compatibility matrix to ensure that their current infrastructure (or components that they might purchase in the future) will work with the 4Gb/s solution being considered. As always, customers should evaluate the total cost of the solution, including both initial software and hardware costs, and ongoing maintenance costs. Storage systems have typically been in productive use for a period of three years; however some users are now extending this time to four or more years. Like the change of seasons, technology innovation is constant. Since 4Gb/s is likely to be the predominant storage standard by 2006 it makes good sense to purchase what is anticipated to become the industry standard during the life of your new system.

Steve Gardner is director of product marketing for Engenio Information Technologies, Inc. (Milpitas, CA)

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