Fiber channel getting a boost from new connection standard

Fiber channel is the leading standard for high-end storage networking, and it's about to get even faster. How much that matters may depend on operating system support and competition from Ethernet.

Fiber channel networks ... in less than two minutes

One of the problems with most solid-state drives, whether they're directly attached to computers or arranged in flash arrays, is that they still communicate using pathways designed for traditional spinning hard disks. When the drive can work faster than the pathway, it's time to upgrade the pathway.

Enter non-volatile memory express or NVMe in industry shorthand. It's a standard nearing completion, with widespread operating system support and products beginning to trickle into the market. It is built atop PCI Express ( which faces its own challenges), rather than the older Advance Host Control Interface, so that bandwidth in motherboards and device adapters stops being an impediment to speedy drives.

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Next up is NVMe for fiber channel. TechRepublic readers know that fiber channel is a fiber-optic storage networking standard that's been receiving updates for more than 20 years. Now, component vendors are starting to test interoperability for products using the FC-NVMe standard, the Fibre Channel Industry Association recently announced.

Whether FC-NVMe will succeed depends on your definition of success. Fiber channel of any flavor is a vital part of a balanced storage networking diet for large enterprises. If your organization owns critical data in the terabytes and petabytes, then it's probably on a fiber channel SAN. However, network-attached storage using traditional Ethernet can be just about as large and speedy.

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Common sense indicates FC-NVMe will be great for existing fiber channel SAN users. It will basically be an automatic upgrade as customers gradually cycle out storage networking older components, FCIA president Mark Jones explained.

The bigger question revolves around new installations. "I haven't heard about NVMe over fiber channel, particularly for new installations. I can imagine some special situations where a facility that has a lot of fiber channel SAN already where this might be attractive, but I suspect that this will not be very widespread and only a short-term market. I suspect that new network storage installations will be primarily [Ethernet]-based," storage and memory consultant Tom Coughlin said.

Jones acknowledged that fiber channel, similar to mainframes or tape storage, may become even more of a niche technology for high-end environments than it already is. But it won't go away anytime soon due to features such as lossless delivery, security, and speed.

"We're used to a certain level of reliability and hardness with fiber channel," Jones said. An earlier standard called fiber channel over Ethernet didn't take off for similar reasons, he noted. "I think NVMe-over-fabrics right now is at that very early stage where it kind of works but it doesn't have all those features yet," he said. "I think it's going to be a few years... to where we get to a point where things are as good as where traditional fiber channel SANs are today."

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Meanwhile, companies supporting FC-NVMe are literally plugging away--many of them are planning another plugfest event to test their products together this fall, with yet another planned for spring 2018. The 2018 events are where more companies that make arrays and servers will get involved, building on the component-level companies currently playing, Jones explained.

Suse, known for its enterprise Linux, already announced operating system support for FC-NVMe. A representative for Microsoft said the Windows developer had nothing to share about its own plans for FC-NVMe at this time.

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