A preview of Fibre Channel performance

Today's environment demands very fast transfer of large volumes of information. No wonder the Fibre Channel (FC) and Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL) storage interfaces have generated so much interest. If you compare SCSI's current high-end 40MBps data transfer rate with FC's high-end 106MBps, you might think you can realize a 265 percent improvement in performance. But is FC that much faster? The Windows NT Magazine Lab compared the two interfaces.

ANSI developed the FC Standard in 1988 as a practical, inexpensive, and expandable method of using fiber optic cabling to transfer data among desktop computers, workstations, mainframes, supercomputers, storage devices, and display devices. ANSI changed the standard to support copper cabling; today, some kinds of FC use two-pair copper wire to connect the outer four pins of a nine-pin type connector, as you see in the photo. So despite the name, most current implementations of FC don't use fiber optic cabling.

FC-AL cable and connectors
SCSI cable and connectors

Copper wire connections work for up to 30 meters; beyond that distance, you must use fiber optic cabling and connectors. With fiber optic cables, you plug in an optic converter on both ends of the FC connection, and you can reach up to 10km. This distance is clearly superior to the current limitation of 25 meters for the differential SCSI technology. (For more information about SCSI, see Sean Daily, "SCSI and IDE: Defining the Differences," June 1997.)

FC's design is similar to the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) network layers. FC supports several data communication protocols, including Fiber Distributed Data Interface (FDDI), High-Performance Parallel Interface (HiPPI), Intelligent Peripheral Interface (IPI)-3, Internet Protocol (IP), SCSI-3, Ethernet, Token Ring, and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM).

You can conFigure FC for data rates of 13.3MBps, 26.6MBps, 53.2MBps, and 106.4MBps; and it can achieve these transfer rates in both directions simultaneously (duplex). Thus, FC can transfer data at more than 200MBps, if usage is balanced in both directions--quite an improvement over the simplex and half-duplex interfaces such as SCSI. Work is under way for FC specifications of 400MBps (again, in both directions simultaneously; this technology could attain a data rate of more than 800MBps). Also note that an Ultra2 SCSI version is under development that will offer speeds up to 80MBps.

FC Configurations
You can conFigure FC ports three ways: in an FC-AL, in point-to-point links, or in a switch. The most common configuration (and the one you can buy now for Windows NT) is FC-AL, which ANSI developed to connect peripherals. In FC-AL, you usually connect the output of one FC device to the input of another FC device, and you connect the last device back to the first device, creating a loop. An FC-AL natively uses the SCSI-3 (SCSI FCP) protocols and can address 127 FC devices or nodes within the limitations of the 30-meter copper cable or the 10km optic cable. (A SCSI connection can handle only seven devices, excluding the computer.)

FC-AL is a simple closed serial loop. An FC-AL device has two connectors (one in and one out) an arrangement that makes connecting devices a breeze. You run a cable from the card in the computer to the first FC device and then connect each FC device in the chain to the next device. On the last device in the chain, you plug a loop-back connector into the out connector, which runs the data from the connector's send side to its receive side to complete the loop. Each connection uses four wires: two for transmitting and two for receiving. Using an electrical differential technique, FC (like differential SCSI) uses a balanced negative and positive wire pair to improve data integrity and to let you spread the network over greater distances.

FC and NT
Several vendors support FC in the NT market. Adaptec and Emulex have FC cards with drivers for NT, and Raidtec has a complete FC hard drive setup: Raidtec hard drive enclosure, an Emulex LightPulse PCI FC Host Adapter card, and Seagate FC-AL hard drives. Some manufacturers are producing hard drives for use in FC arrays. Unfortunately, no hardware-based FC RAID solutions are currently available. If you want RAID, you must use the slower, software-based RAID that is included with NT Server.

The Lab compared Raidtec's FC offering with its SCSI-3 RAID system, using an Amdahl 200MHz quad-processor Pentium Pro system with 512MB of RAM. Because hardware-based RAID isn't available for FC, we tested both systems using a four-drive stripe set, which writes the data evenly across all the drives without fault tolerance. To get a general idea of the difference in transfer speed, we timed copying NT's Service Pack 3 from one directory to another directory on the same disk. The FC system was about 5 seconds faster.

For a more sophisticated test, we used BlueCurve's Dynameasure benchmarking tool to test the networks' performance. (For more information about this tool and the benchmarks we used, see Carlos Bernal, "Dynameasure Enterprise 1.5 by BlueCurve," page 81.) Because we were working with alpha and beta FC products, we kept our tests simple and used the SQL and File transfer benchmarks to look only at whether FC offers a performance advantage.

For the SQL benchmark, we used the Order Entry/Single Read/Write and Order Entry/Mixed Read/Write tests with a 96MB dataset. For the File benchmark, we used the Copy All Bi-directional benchmark, which copies a random mix of files; the file dataset size was 35.6MB. We used 20 client systems in a five-step test that simulated 20 to 100 users.

FC and SCSI-3 performed about the same in the SQL test, as you see in Table 1 . In the file transfer test, we found FC to be 10 percent to 20 percent faster than SCSI-3, as you see in Table 2. This result is much different from the 265 percent that you might expect. Of course, performance is subject to change with the final releases of the hardware components and software drivers.

So, why wasn't FC faster? Perhaps the hard drives couldn't spit out data fast enough, or the FC card in the server couldn't pump data into memory fast enough, or the CPUs couldn't take the data out of memory and dump it back to the FC card fast enough, or a combination of these factors. This situation is analogous to the difference between a 10Mbps and a 100Mbps Ethernet: The performance doesn't increase 10 times when you move from 10Mbps to a 100Mbps network, only about 2.5 times. The speed of the wire (the transfer rate) is only one of many factors that come into play when you interconnect equipment.

Today, FC can connect more devices and give you an extra bit of performance over SCSI-3, although you can approach FC's speed and connectivity by using multiple SCSI controllers. FC costs more now because it is new technology, but its costs are already coming down. If you need the fault tolerance of RAID, you can buy hardware-based SCSI RAID controllers, which are much faster than software-based RAID, thus making a multichannel SCSI solution a better solution than FC for many applications. But tomorrow will bring hardware-based FC RAID solutions and FC-to-SCSI converters. Then FC will be more attractive.

Additional Information
You can find more information about FC at the following locations:

Fibre Channel Association (FCA): http://www.amdahl.com/ext/CARP/FCA

Fibre Channel Systems Initiative (FCSI): http://www.amdahl.com/ext/CARP/FCA/FCSI.html

Fibre Channel Consortium: http://www.iol.unh.edu/consortiums/fc

Fibre Channel Loop Community: http://www.symbios.com/fclc

Ancor Communications: http://www.ancor.com/fcinfo.htm

American National Standards Institute (ANSI): http://www.ansi.org/docs/home.html

You can find more information about SCSI technologies at these locations:

ANSI X3T10 Subcommittee: http://www.symbios.com/x3t10

ANCOT: http://www.ancot.com

Contact Info:
Adaptec * 408-945-8600 or 800-442-7274
Web: http://www.adaptec.com
Email: sales@adaptec.com

Amdahl * 408-945-8600 or 800-442-7274
Web: http://www.amdahl.com

Emulex * 714-662-5600 or 800-854-7112
Web: http://www.emulex.com
Email: info@emulex.com

Raidtec * 770-664-6066
Web: http://www.raidtec.com
Email: raidtec@raidtec.com

Seagate Technology * 408-438-8111
Web: http://www.seagate.com