IBM Latest Vendor To Throw Hat Into 4-Gbps Ring

Manufacturers of arrays, SAN switches and host bus adapters have already or are in the process of unveiling products designed to build Fibre Channel SANs using the 4-Gbps protocol. Such vendors expect hard drives with 4-Gbps Fibre Channel interfaces to start shipping by the end of the year.

Solution providers welcome the move to 4-Gbps Fibre Channel, which promises a doubling in performance over the current 2-Gbps products at little extra cost initially, with the price difference expected to shrink to zero by next year.

"It's certainly welcome," said Greg Knieriemen, vice president of marketing at Chi, a Cleveland-based solution provider. "It opens up new possibilities for us and allows us more flexibility in solving customers' network problems."

Demand for 4-Gbps products is still not high for customers who have a well-architected SAN, Knieriemen said. However, customers with SANs that have been patched together over time with little thought to organization will find 4-Gbps products will make it easier to improve those SANs' performance without completely rebuilding the networks.

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"Quite often people are not exceeding their bandwidths," Knieriemen said. "They see a network slowdown and think they are exceeding their pipeline, but often it is something else. I'm not yet personally seeing anyplace where the need to exceed 2-Gbps is a reason to push for 4-Gbps."

Michael Piltoff, senior vice president of solution marketing at Champion Solutions Group, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based IBM storage solution provider, said that it's up to the channel to assist customers learn how the new technology fits their needs.

With the price of 4-Gbps products expected to fall, it will be the best alternative for installing new SANs, or for existing SANs where large imaging or R&D files are stored and accessed, Piltoff said. But for existing SANs used for such applications as databases, the extra performance may not be necessary, he said.

Such details are not stopping IBM from making its first foray into the 4-Gbps Fibre Channel space. The company's DS4800 controller, a 3U-high rack-mount device, is expected to start shipping in June, said Craig Butler, manager of product marketing for disk storage products at IBM.

Pricing for the device has yet to be determined, but may be near the $65,000 price of the company's existing DS4500 before its drop in price a couple weeks ago to $50,000, he said.

To increase reliability, the DS4800 has only five field-replaceable units, all of which are hot-swappable, Butler said. "Customers can even remove the interconnect module with the backplane, and their array still runs," he said. "[The interconnect] just fails over to one of the dual controllers. It's unique to IBM."

IBM joins StorageTek and SGI as the only announced brand-name vendors of 4-Gbps storage arrays. Mountain View, Calif.-based SGI began shipping its TP9700 in February, and already counts the Department of Defense as a customer. And StorageTek, Louisville, Colo., plans to start shipping its FlexLine FLX380 array this month.

All three vendors' arrays share a common ancestor: They are built around the 6998 storage controller from Milpitas, Calif.-based Engenio, one of the world's largest manufacturers of storage devices on an OEM basis.

Mitch Siegel, senior director of corporate marketing at Engenio, said that despite the lack of 4-Gbps-based hard drives, customers will still see a significant performance boost when using 2-Gbps hard drives. Siegel said he expects 4-Gbps technology to be initially priced at about the level of current 2-Gbps technology, while 2-Gbps array prices will fall to make up for the difference in performance.

Other vendors also are working on 4-Gbps storage arrays. Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard, for instance, will shortly roll out a 4-Gbps blade-based Fibre Channel switch and a host bus adapter, with 4-Gbps-based versions of its MSA and EVA array families expected to be available within the next 12 months, said Kyle Fitze, marketing director for HP StorageWorks SANs.

EMC, Hopkinton, Mass., is working on 4-Gbps versions of its storage arrays and is already shipping 4-Gbps storage switches from San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade Communications Systems, an EMC spokesperson said.

In addition to Brocade, Milpitas, Calif.-based McData also is already shipping 4-Gbps-based Fibre Channel switches.

On the host bus adapter side, Amherst, NY-based ATTO Technology and Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Emulex have unveiled 4-Gbps models, while LSI Logic, parent company of Engenio, is expecting to ship its adapters by the end of June.