Fibre Channel: A Quarter Century of Reliable Storage

For just under a year I have been working for the UNH-IOL within the Fibre Channel Consortium. Fibre Channel (FC) is a high-speed network technology for transferring data. Fibre channel is considered to be fast (most commonly at 2, 4 and 8 gigabit per second speeds) and highly reliable, making it ideal for Storage Area Networks (SANs). The storage components that make up an FC system are invisible to the servers, which simply enjoy direct access to a pool of storage.

Fibre Channel’s attempts at standardization date back to 1988. People were searching for a primary mid to high-end storage technology to replace the then-current system of High Performance Parallel Interface (HIPPI). The original concerns for Fibre Channel were longer distances as opposed to faster speeds. A few different methods were introduced around this time, including IBM’s Serial Storage Architecture. Historically, technologies backed by IBM tended to become the industry standard, making FC’s popularity all the more impressive. FC consistently performed better than competing technologies without sacrificing reliability at longer distances. In addition, if any of the devices fail, the infrastructure will remain intact, allowing the rest of the network to function unaffected. In 1994 Fibre Channel was officially standardized with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Fibre Channel has come quite a long way in the last 25 years. There are three topologies within FC—Point-to-point, Loop, and Fabric, which can connect almost 17 million unique devices. Speeds higher than 8G removed the loop topology. After a quarter century of consistent improvement, large networks can benefit from being updated to higher speeds—now up to 16 gigabits. They may be reluctant to replace the entire network all at once, given that a single connection can be up to half a mile long, making the process quite extensive. Fibre Channel’s excellent backwards compatibility has been a key to the technology’s success, allowing companies to update their networks over time, rather than all at once.

The idea of Cloud Computing has become a very hot topic as of late; the principles involved in cloud computing are key ideas of Fibre Channel, as well. A Fibre Channel network gives users direct access to a storage device through multiple devices, and users can alter components of the network without affecting the overall network itself.

Fibre Channel is always improving; 32 and 64 gigabit speeds are expected in the next few years. Though there is ongoing debate about the merits of Fibre Channel versus other technologies, FC’s future seems quite secure with its reliability and adaptability. Here in the UNH-IOL FC Consortium, we are dedicated to verifying all of these intricate parts and their interoperability. Find out more about FC.

Jamie Bilodeau, Fibre Channel Technician