Optical/IP Networks

The Fall of Fibre Channel

The Roman Empire.

The Dallas Cowboys.

Van Halen...

Once upon a time, Great Institutions. Now… Not!

This just in: Fibre Channel is set to join them in the “Where are they now?” file.

I’ll repeat that for the hearing impaired: Fibre Channel will fall. Fail. Falter. In other words: The end is nigh!

But all kidding aside, I’m not trying to start a panic here. As is the case with our Sun (that hot, throbbing blob up in the sky; not the one that makes servers), there’s still some time (tick, tock, tick, tock) before the thing fizzles out. Network managers who’ve deployed Fibre Channel, or investors that have bought stock in Brocade, still have time to prepare for the end of the world (as we know it, Jimmy!).

But how long? Read on, gentle reader, and all shall be revealed.

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I’m not anti-Fibre Channel. Far from it: I was actually one of its earliest proponents. Way back in 1989 (simpler, yet happier, times), just before I moved to the U.S.A. from the U.K., I wrote one of the first articles about what was then a little known high-speed LAN standard called Fibre Channel.

Fibre Channel was the brainchild of a bunch of academic types at the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) with very large foreheads (“fiveheads,” you might say), and its biggest competitor back then was generally considered to be asynchronous transfer mode, or ATM.

Anyway, 12 years ago, it was a younger, thinner Steve Saunders that did the due diligence for his article, compared the specs and applications for both standards, and stuck his cervical vertebrae out – predicting that Fibre Channel would beat out ATM for very-high-throughput I/O apps within ultra-high-speed LANs (the term “SAN” not having been invented at that time).

I even titled the article: “Fibre Channel Outpaces ATM.”

And, my! How the villagers laughed. Suffice it to say that my analysis was unpopular with vendors, pundits, and other journalists – most of whom at that time were hailing ATM as the Second Coming.

Whatever… It took a decade, but both the ANSI boffins and I were eventually proved right, which is quite satisfying if you’re the sort of “told you so” person who takes satisfaction in that sort of thing (and I know I am).

But now things are about to change, and Fibre Channel’s fortunes are set to take a nasty turn for the worst. How do I know? It’s all about history – and learning from its lessons.

Flashback time

As a journalist I’ve written about a bunch of technology rumbles over the years: shared media networks versus switched networks, 100Base-T versus 100VG-AnyLAN, ATM versus IP, Netware versus NT (not much of a fight, that one).

And, of course, Ethernet versus Token Ring, FDDI, FDDI II, FFOL, HIPPI, IsoEnet, ATM, and a few others that should never have gotten off the whiteboard.

(For more on all this, see if you can lay your hands on a copy of that ripping historical yarn, The McGraw-Hill High-Speed LAN Handbook, by Stephen Saunders, McGraw-Hill, 1996, available at all good garage sales and recycling facilities near you.)

What’s interesting (I hope) about all these fights is the characteristics they share:

  • One:

      The press picks one technology and starts hyping the bejeesus out of it. The pack’s choice is based almost exclusively on what veeps of marketing tell it, though trade journalists also have a natural tendency to migrate towards the more recent of any two given technologies. This is because the “New Technology Underdog” story is a lot more interesting than the “Hey, This New Technology Sucks!” story, and actually takes a lot less chutzpah to write. (Note: The press can’t lose with this gambit, because, should their chosen technology keel over later on, they still get to write the juicy “Backlash!” “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and “We Blame [name of big vendor]!” articles).
  • Two:

      Vendors line up on either side of the battlefield, William-Wallace-versus-Evil-English fashion, and…
  • Three:

      If there’s a standards process involved, the vendors promptly hijack it, putting their short-term fiscal interests over those of their users. Meanwhile…
  • Four:

      Market research firms forecast that the market for this new technology will grow to twenty gazillion-trillion-jillion dollars by next Tuesday, and…
  • Five:

      End users (poor buggers) pay way too much to wander around trade shows and conferences in a confused state, not being invited to the standards meetings, trying to work out which is the best option, and finding out that, yes, actually, sometimes people do get fired for buying [insert name of current or historical market-leading vendor here: IBM/Cisco/Novell/Brocade, etc.).
    So what’s missing from this five-step program? Ironically, it’s the one thing that can genuinely provide a clue as to which way the tech tides are set to flow: an examination of the business case – now, and in the future, for the various technology options.

    Next: Case, business, lack of
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    optodoofus 12/4/2012 | 7:37:00 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel Steve,

    You forgot the rule about never going up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

    the doof
    DickW 12/4/2012 | 7:36:29 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel I agree in general terms with what you have written here..... But, fibre won't die just for the reasons you state but because new fibre optic bus wave division multiplexing tech will just eliminate the need for switches anyway...

    [email protected]
    scott_mcfarland 12/4/2012 | 7:36:15 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel In regards to the article on "The Fall of Fibre Channel" I have to disagree with the strong stance this column takes. While it is obvious that iSCSI and other IP-based storage strategies are developing and will have their place they will not EVER totally displace fibre channel. Both will ultimiately live harmoniously together. I have news for you. Cisco may know the IP world but they don't have a clue about storage networking. They have no background in storage and quite honestly can't go into customer meetings today and talk very educated about how their products (now or future) will impact the local or remote storage networking environment. Cisco is not the save all as I think those people who jumped on Cisco's IP Telephony bandwagon have learned. While Brocade could do a better job with product development they also understand that there is still time in a very immature IP storage market to make a move. It will ultimately be companies like CNT (A true storage networking company) that benefit from this battle because we come from storage networking and understand the whole landscape of the need for both fibre channel based and IP based as well as local SANs and extended SANs. Sincerely, Scott McFarland
    gea 12/4/2012 | 7:36:14 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel Actually, i thought this was one of the better articles I've seen come from this Lightreading gang, and the balance of technical, economic, and "multi-vendor" issues made a lot of sense.

    That said, I am still amazed at how much ESCON seems to exist in some networks, to the point now where multiple vendors now offer "ESCON TDM" interfaces on their boxes. It would seem, then, that those using ESCON never found the appropriate technology to replace it, or to make them want to. One wonders, then, if there may not be truth in McFarland's statement above: Storage may have some special needs that us non-storage poeple have no clue about.

    Oh, and don't forget the optical angle: depending on how transparent Metro optical networks become, running plenty of ESCON/Fibre Channel traffic may not be a big deal at all. On the other hand, if optics become "married" to either SONET, Ethernet, or both, then there will be more impetus in moving SANs over to IP-type solutions.
    l8tereader 12/4/2012 | 7:36:08 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel like, for example... Ficon, SCSI, PCI, TDM, legacy Windows apps, that stupid 3.5" disk that I'm not sure anyone uses...

    Fibre channel certainly has a lot more going for it than the above...
    rjmcmahon 12/4/2012 | 7:36:07 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel While it is obvious that iSCSI and other IP-based storage strategies are developing and will have their place they will not EVER totally displace fibre channel. Both will ultimiately live harmoniously together.

    Its hard to see FC as a transport network in the long run. Converging the switches makes too much sense. The history of token ring networks may foreshadow the future of FC networks, in my opinion.

    Steve Saunders 12/4/2012 | 7:36:07 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel Scott:

    What you said:

    "...they will not EVER totally displace fibre channel."

    What my column says:

    "[Fibre Channel] will probably remain with us indefinitely in a gradually diminishing role."

    Glad we agree.

    Steve Saunders 12/4/2012 | 7:36:07 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel optodoofus,

    Glad to see somebody else spotted the Princess Bride reference. Classic Movie.


    gea 12/4/2012 | 7:36:03 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel TDM? Metro Ethernet will sell $350 million, while metro SONET will be about $5.5 BILLION this year. TDM ain't goin away any time soon, not as long as carriers are addicted to leased-line incomes.

    The relevance of this to Fibre Channel is the rule of what I call "technological inertia"...the larger the embedded base, the harder it is to get rid of a technology, even if it is "outdated". I believe Fibre Channel sales are well into the billions this year, so it's gonna be a while before any would-be IP SAN standard takes over (and it'll be a year or two before any IP-based SAN standard is ready).
    emf1937 12/4/2012 | 7:35:49 PM
    re: The Fall of Fibre Channel This is the most curiously distorted piece that I have seen in a long time.

    For someone who claims to have written about Fibre Channel a long time ago, the historical facts aren't even close to being correct.

    1. It was not done be "academics", but by major industry players such as HP, SUN, IBM. FYI I ran the Fibre Channel Systems Initiative sponsored by those companies from 1992 to 1995.

    2. It was not designed as a "competing LAN standard", but a full systems level connection that incorporated storage into the systems architecture.

    3. As to the viability, our company Infinity I/O, Inc. just rolled out with over 200 members of the Storage Networking Industry Association, the first of a series of certification programs on Storage Networking. This first one was where the biggest market (not pundit, not commentator, not technology purist) demand is - on the Fibre Channel part of Storage Networking. Let's see, several million ports this year in the Fibre Channel part of Storage Networking. And their will be iSCSI ports as well for the areas where it is most appropriate and it will be a growth market.

    4. What this author fails to grasp is that it is a system level information and storage networking market, not a "technology protocol market". Within that, there will be many protocols and methods. It is not a "protocol take all" situation.

    Fibre Channel is great for many things, but so are other technologies like iSCSI, TCP/IP,FC-IP, IP-FC, etc. They will all find their place and position in the Storage Networking eco system. And many other management, security, and systems functions will as well. This is a multi-species bio-system, not a mono-culture.

    Probably the most important area today is integration, management, and security -- not "protocol" things. Users have moved beyond that (protocols) and fortunately understand what is in their business interests.

    My interests are at the system and benefit level. There is a lot to manage that no single protocol even begins to address effectively. Network management, storage management, information management, systems management are all needed. The feeds, speeds, encoding, and network pieces are part of it, but only to a relatively minor extent.

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