If your company needs a storage-area network (SAN) or an enterprise backup system, you’ll need to brush up on the subject of fiber channel (fiber optic) networking gear, which connects the components to your servers. This applies to storage arrays using traditional hard disk drives or all-flash arrays, along with traditional tape backup or disk-based backup. This guide is an entry-level summary about fiber channel networking.

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Executive summary

  • What is it? Fiber channel is a high-speed network technology for data sent using blocks instead of files. Put simply, a block is raw data of a structured size that becomes a file when combined with other blocks as determined by an application. Just as in an Ethernet-based network, you need various pieces of hardware to connect it all.
  • Why does it matter? Blocks are small, and fiber optic networking is fast, so when you combine them the result is a brutally swift method for server-based applications to transport information. Sending whole files and their associated metadata would be slower, which is why fiber SANs are good for wide-area networks, and Ethernet-based network-attached storage (NAS) is generally limited to local-area networks.
  • Who does this affect? Fiber channel networking affects those who work with high-bandwidth applications over a WAN. Backup, databases, email, and specialized applications are examples.
  • When is this happening? Fiber channel networking isn’t new, but as with Ethernet it is constantly evolving. It is important to keep your network updated so it doesn’t slow down as application data grows or application speed requirements increase.
  • How do I get it? You can purchase fiber channel networking hardware from any number of sources, including your conventional networking provider, a storage networking specialist, or as a bundle from your storage array reseller.

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What is fiber channel networking?

Storage switches are the heart of fiber channel networking. Storage switches are basically the same thing as routers, except their ports are fiber channel instead of Ethernet. No wonder that networking giant Cisco Systems is a leading storage switch manufacturer. The main competitor is Brocade Communications Systems. Brocade was the main pioneer of storage networking in the 1990s and was led by Kumar Malavalli, who co-developed the fiber channel industry standards.

As of summer 2016, Cisco’s largest storage switch has 768 ports and Brocade’s largest has 384 ports. Large systems are known as directors. Meanwhile, the fiber equivalent of a network card is called a host-bus adapter (HBA); many companies make these adapters.

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Why does fiber channel networking matter?

Companies such as NetApp are doing amazing things with NAS and file-based storage, but SANs with block-based storage atop fiber networks are the stalwart that won’t go away– you shouldn’t be surprised to learn that IBM mainframes and many supercomputers also use fiber networking. Meanwhile, data only ever seems to grow–it almost never shrinks.

Terabyte SANs no longer impress anyone, as modern SANs easily exceed a petabyte, and chances are high that exabyte SANs aren’t far off. Fiber channel networking matters because Ethernet networking and file-based data cannot handle such vast amounts of information.

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Who does this affect?

Beyond just your storage administrators, fiber channel networking also impacts those who administer application servers, those who monitor network performance, and those who link it all to your websites or any other user-centric outlets. It also matters to those who pull your company’s purse strings–fiber networking isn’t cheap.

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When is this happening?

Right now. Sixth-generation fiber channel networking components are rolling out this summer and fall with 128 gigabit speeds. A version for 256 gigs is already in development, and the Fibre Channel Industry Association published a roadmap showing terabit speeds coming in the next decade. Fiber channel over Ethernet also exists but is not popular.

(Malavalli, the former Brocade executive, noted that first-generation fiber channel for storage ran at 1 gigabit per second, and that Brocade’s first customer was the now-defunct Sequent Computer Systems, which specialized in high-speed servers and storage. He said the early SAN days taught him about network agnosticism. He’s now working at Glassbeam, developing analytics software for internet-of-things networking.)

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How do I get it?

As with an Ethernet network, you can buy all your fiber channel networking gear from a single manufacturer or mix-and-match based on cost, features, speed, and so on. Brocade and Cisco are the only real choices for the directors and switches.

Smart shoppers should ask check with their storage array providers and installers to find the best deals. It’s likely that switches and HBAs can be bundled with other products, especially if you have an existing relationship with (for example) Cisco for networking gear or Dell/EMC for big iron.

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