Sun Microsystems Inc has disclosed more details concerning its push into the third party storage business later this year (CI No 3,126), though it’s being no more specific on timing. Its project, to bring second-generation Fiber Channel, FC – or more correctly 100Mbyte/1Gbit per second Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop, FC-AL – storage technologies to market for Sun and third party platforms is currently known as Photon, for the optical dimension. Although it is commonly accepted that IBM Corp’s rival Serial Storage Architecture has failed to sweep all before it in the battle to set the standard for next generation high-speed disk access, Sun is nevertheless concerned to put down renewed activity from the SSA camp, for which Big Blue has developed a second-generation chip set which doubles SSA throughput to 160Mbytes per second. A simple understanding of next-generation storage access is that SSA solves SCSI’s throughput and configuration problems at a slightly higher cost while FC provides for very high transfer rates, with some constraint on connectivity depending on which FC flavor is deployed, at a higher price point again.
Few FC storage peripherals available
None of this was very discernible a couple of years ago when the Fiber Channel Initiative was making such a din you’d have thought the whole world would own FC devices by now. In fact, despite Sun’s claim to have installed 2,000 terabytes, or two petabytes, of FC storage since it began selling the FC SparcStorage Array three years ago, there are very few FC storage peripherals available on the market and even less operating system support, meaning SCSI-to-FC chipset-builders have been able to build nice little businesses for themselves. That’s supposed to change this quarter when a rash of FC-AL – as opposed to point-to-point FC – products are supposed to hit the market, from Brocade Communications Inc’s switch, Box Hill Systems Corp, and a slew of storage units from FC supporters, including Hewlett-Packard Co, Silicon Graphics Inc and Unisys Corp. Seagate Technology Corp is currently the only vendor actually selling FC disk drives. Why? Because putting gigabit signals on a backplane is hard, explains Sun, plus FC silicon chipsets, sever-based FC ports, firmware and device driver support in operating systems must all be aligned. Sun says it’ll market and sell hubs and switches as part of its Photon offerings as well as disk subsystems – it has got its own PCI-to FC chipset coming from Sun Microelectronics too – but isn’t saying whether it will rebadge Brocade technologies; Brocade was co-founded by VP engineering Paul Bonderson, formerly with Sun and has investment from Sun founders Bill Joy and Andy Bechtolsheim. Sun’s Java-based storage management software is in beta test and is expected in a couple of months. SSA supporters include Siemens Nixdorf Informationssyteme AG, Amdahl Corp, Compagnie des Machines Bull SA and others, though ironically IBM will also be marketing FC subsystems this year too. IBM’s SSA 7133 drives are made for it by the November 1995 Xyratex Ltd management buyout of its UK disk manufacturing plant in Havant, UK; Xyratex has also agreed to make FC drives for IBM.