Just how much life does fibre channel still have in it? I don't mean in the short term (the next 2 years)—but in the longer term (say 3 to 5 years). Infiniband will steal a lot of fibre channel's thunder, and various storage-over-IP (SoIP) technologies will also put increasing pressure on this protocol. When I ask people who work in the field about fibre channel, most say that they expect it to be around for a while—because it just works.
I don't mean to offend those for whom fibre channel is a religious experience, nor make the SCSI faithful unhappy. However, the way I see it, any fibre channel company that isn't becoming multiprotocol is in trouble. Emulex is one company that apparently has the current "protocol soup" figured out. This leading supplier of host bus adapters (HBAs) bought Giganet to broaden its reach from fibre channel HBAs into the IP world, and—in doing so—has covered its bets.
Emulex is a $5-billion hardware company—and Giganet was just a "guppy" in corporate terms. But Giganet had cLAN, one of the more interesting and important interconnect technologies around. Often, cLAN appeared in performance SPECmarks as the glue that made large Microsoft enterprise technology demonstrations work. cLAN uses the Virtual Interface (VI) architecture to send data between servers, bypassing server CPU and cutting I/O CPU cycles by up to 80 percent. In July 2000, Giganet announced the Giganet GN9000/VI VI/IP HBA, a product that sells with Network Attached Storage (NAS) appliances. Emulex/Giganet's family of IP networking products also includes the cLAN 1000 HBA and the cLAN 5000/5300 cluster switches—and the recently announced GN9000/SI iSCSI HBA.
Microsoft is about to help Emulex by including VI support as part of the enhanced Winsock that ships with Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and by using Emulex-developed drivers. Emulex reports that in tests performed in Microsoft's labs, cLAN (when applied with Winsock Direct) delivers a 30-percent improvement in application performance across several tested applications with an 80-percent reduction of CPU overhead. None of the applications tested required additional development to work with this system. The net result? Emulex/Giganet will no longer have to qualify vendors' applications to work with its cLAN technology.
As one Emulex (nee Giganet) product manager told me, "cLAN is a tough act to follow." Giganet's talented crew of engineers (now Emulex's IP networking division) is about to embark on a new round of product introductions that will fill out Emulex's IP line and should keep Emulex a player in the peripheral I/O market, whatever direction the market takes.
Emulex/Giganet's parade of new products in the iSCSI field began March 19 with the Emulex GN9000/SI iSCSI HBA. The GN9000/SI is among Emulex's IP-based storage networking HBAs, which let servers communicate directly with storage devices over IP networks. It supports block-level data access over IP networks, including data that resides on fibre channel Storage Area Networks (SANs).
The GN9000/SI HBA will leverage Emulex's service level interface, which server and storage providers use to build high-performance fibre channel SANs. The Emulex GN9000/SI HBA will be commercially available by the end of 2001, at which time Emulex will be able to sell both fibre channel and IP technologies to its customers.
The company has also announced the Emulex iSCSI developer's kit, which will be available mid-2001. The developer's kit includes prototype iSCSI hardware and sample iSCSI software drivers that demonstrate the highly leveraged Emulex SLI. Through the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), Emulex is also testing iSCSI interoperability.
iSCSI supports remote access of SCSI-based block-level SoIP networks by encapsulating the blocks in frames that Ethernet and TCP/IP understand. Emulex—along with Brocade Communications, Cisco Systems, IBM, and others—has been active in SNIA's IP Storage Forum.
Emulex's announcements are among the first in the SoIP arena—and more will follow. (The StorageNetworking World conference is replete with announcements in this field.) What makes Emulex significant is the company's size. It's a player. Coming fairly soon are Cisco's SoIP products; I'll soon be able to tell you what and when.