Fibre Channel is still alive and kicking

Brocade announces the first Gen6 Fibre Channel switch
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Brocade announces the first Gen6 Fibre Channel switch

In 1897 the great American author, Mark Twain was rumored to have stated, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. In the tech industry, Fibre Channel could make the same statement. It seems that for years, the death of Fibre Channel has been speculated, as Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) or even IP networks would be the death knell for the more traditional storage protocol.

However, Fibre Channel is still alive and kicking. It’s certainly not the high growth market it once was but the market has maintained about a $2 billion run rate over the past few years. The big driver for the continued investment has been the rise of flash-based storage. The value proposition of flash is speed so it makes sense to deploy a storage network that is as fast as possible.

Brocade (Brocade is a ZK Research client) has been the market leader in Fibre Channel for years and currently holds about 70% share. One of the reasons that the company has been able to maintain it’s dominant position is because the company continues to innovate Fibre Channel even in the face of predictions that the technology was going to quickly become irrelevant. As noted earlier, the demise of Fibre Channel never occurred and now Brocade is reaping the rewards of those investments.

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When the technology went though the last major upgrade (16 Gig), Brocade introduced the products as “Gen 5”. Prior to this version of Fibre Channel, the only real difference between versions was speed as it evolved from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8. With Gen 5 though, Brocade introduced a number of features to improve the manageability of the products and visibility of the network.

This week Brocade announced “Gen 6” Fibre Channel and like Gen 5, this upgrade is about more than speed. Brocade’s G620 Fibre Channel switch is first multi-speed SAN switch. The product has 48x32 Gig SFP+ ports and 4x128 Gig Q-Flex ports. Each 128 Gig port can be a single 128 link or be broken out in 4x32 Gig giving the product a maximum capacity of 64 32 Gig ports.

Initially the 128 ports will be used for inter-switch links (ISL) to connect Brocade switches to each other but the company did tell me it was aggressively working with the host bus adapter (HBA) vendors to enable 128 Gig Fibre Channel server connections in the near future.

In a flash based world, the 32 Gig speed is significant, as the network needs to provide maximum speed and throughput. As an example, flash based database queries will be completed 75% faster than on 8 Gig Fibre Channel. Faster access means greater data throughput, which ultimately leads to faster business decisions being made.  

The Brocade G620 also includes something called “IO Insight” to help businesses have greater visibility into performance monitoring. IO insight is a feature built into Brocade’s ASICs that monitors IO statistics of the devices connected to the Brocade fabric including latency and other IOPS metrics. The data generated by IO Insight can be viewed by Brocade’s Fabric Vision suite. The combination of IO Insight and Fabric Vision can quickly identify misconfiguration and misbehaving components to rapidly identify the source of performance problems.

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The 2015 ZK Research (I am an employee of ZK Research) Network Purchase Intention Survey found that 90% of the time taken to fix a network issue is the time taken to identify the problem. Brocade’s focus on rapid problem identification with IO Insight and Fabric Vision can reduce the time taken to identify problems from days or even hours to minutes.

The other interesting element of Gen 6 is that Brocade’s ecosystem partners Emulex and QLogic will have 32 Gig HBAs available at the same time the G620 becomes available. Typically with Fibre Channel products, the switch manufacturers have products out well ahead of the ecosystem partners. The fact that Brocade, Emulex and QLogic will all have product out at the same time will enable customers to take advantage of Gen 6 immediately.

I expect the market for Gen 6 to move much faster than it did for Gen 5. Gen 5 was announced in 2011 when FCoE hype was at its peak and many customers delayed deploying Fibre Channel until they had a chance to test one versus the other. Fibre Channel is the superior protocol for flash storage and there won’t be any confusion with this upgrade. To capitalize on this, Brocade has priced the solution aggressively with only about a 5% to 10% premium over existing Gen 5 products.

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