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Loop Switches Speed SAN Deployment.

Value-add FC switches support TCO drop

The architecture of open enterprise storage is undergoing a fundamental change. Today's model of distributed servers, each with their own private connection to storage, is rapidly transitioning to a network of storage resources shared by many heterogeneous servers. This new storage architecture has assumed its own identity as a Storage Area Network. Fibre Channel, an open industry standard, has emerged as the technology foundation for the SAN because of its suitability for storage networking. Desirable Fibre Channel attributes include high bandwidth, long distance connections, scalability, and broad industry support from major enterprise server, storage, and networking providers.

Modeling client-server LANs, the SAN environment interconnects servers and storage using a network of high speed connections. SAN eliminates the performance bottlenecks, distance constraints, and scalability limitations imposed by traditional SCSI-based architectures enabling a more distributed storage network for enterprise environments.

What's Driving The SAN Evolution?

Initial deployments of SAN have focused on displacing SCSI interconnects mainly in single server or two-node cluster environments where extended distances and higher storage scalability is required. Hubs, based on Fibre Channel technology, lower total cost of ownership by consolidating connections and enabling centralized management of the expanded storage resources. According to market research firm International Data Corporation, the total cost of managing storage can be reduced by 40% and IT administrators can effectively manage 750% more storage capacity under a centralized SAN environment as compared to the traditional distributed server and storage model. In early deployments of SAN, Storage Hubs provide the simplest and most cost-effective solution (Figure 1).

Based on the promise of significantly lower total cost of ownership when multiple servers share a centralized pool of storage, the industry is now preparing to broaden the application and scope of the SAN to include more complex implementations necessitating the addition of switching. As mainstream operating systems and storage devices support multi-server applications, these servers will require concurrent access to the shared storage resources. The switch provides this concurrency as well as necessary services such as "zoning"--or the ability to segment the network and bind each server to specific disk or tape storage resources (Figure 2). However, although the desire to introduce switching to SANs is quite clear, it is not without its challenges.

While all of the servers, hubs, and storage subsystems are based on the widely supported Fibre Channel protocol known as FC-AL, the early switch products are based on a newer protocol called "Fabric" and are positioned more for SAN backbone applications and less for storage consolidation applications. Although they do provide the required concurrency and switch services, these Backbone Switches have proven to be extremely problematic and costly to implement. Much of this difficulty appears to be directly related to the complexity of the Fabric protocol itself. Attempts to achieve multi-vendor interoperability with Backbone Switches have proven to be a daunting challenge leading some to dub the Fabric protocol as a "non-standard standard" (Figure 3).

In addition to their complexity, the cost of Backbone Switches is also a barrier to their adoption. Backbone Switches are inherently expensive, typically 4-8 times the cost per port of a Storage Hub. However, for many users and integrators, the transition and support costs are perhaps even more painful than the purchase price. Because the Fabric protocol does not directly connect to existing storage devices and host adapters, implementers must re-engineer the network with specialized software, firmware, and hardware on all of the host and storage connections. Extensive multi-vendor interoperability testing must also be performed to verify the stability and reliability of the Fabric-based network. These cost and complexity barriers have severely limited the addition of switching within the SAN. And until recently, SAN implementers had no alternative to the Backbone Switch.

The Loop Switch: A Simple, cost-Effective Approach To SAN Switching

Fortunately, a new switch class was recently introduced to the SAN--the Loop Switch. The Loop Switch delivers the same concurrency and zoning services offered by the Backbone Fabric Switch while eliminating the Cost and complexity of a mixed protocol environment (Figure 4). How is this possible? Based on an innovative implementation of the existing industry standard EC-AL protocol, the Loop Switch maintains the same technology and characteristics of the existing installed base of hubs, storage subsystems, and servers. This approach challenges the common misconception that the FC-AL protocol is limited for use only in a shared bandwidth "loop" topology or that Fabric protocol is required for a switched topology. In truth, the FC-AL standard defines a simple and cost-effective communication protocol that is well suited for both loop and switch topologies. Embracing the FC-AL protocol, a Loop Switch eases the addition of switching and provides a flexible building block for continued SAN evolution and rapid depl oyment.

Applying A Loop Switch In The SAN

One-Tier SAN. For small networks with multiple servers, a Loop Switch can immediately boost storage performance by allowing concurrent traffic between each server and the shared storage resources. Since the Loop Switch is based on the same protocol as the hub and other connected devices, the hub can literally be removed and replaced with a Loop Switch without any other changes to the network. This unique attribute of the Loop Switch drastically reduces the engineering effort and completely preserves the installed base of connected end-node devices. As the network grows, it's easy to add another Loop Switch or hub to facilitate more servers or expanded storage capacity (Figure 5).

Two-Tier SAN. In SAN environments where higher storage scalability is a priority, a combination of hubs and switches can be utilized to construct a two-tiered SAN. In this environment, the hub facilitates the broad, concentrated connectivity for storage while the Loop Switch takes the place of the Backbone Switch to provide the needed concurrency and zoning. This network design can support scaling storage capacity to hundreds or even thousands of terabytes using existing loop protocol standards and technology without ever introducing the fabric protocol and deferring the need for a costly Backbone Switch (Figure 6).

Three-Tier SAN. In extremely large topologies where scalability to thousands or tens of thousands of terabytes are required, the Backbone Switch can be added at the top tier to provide the needed connectivity to thousands of host and storage devices. However, this introduces network complexities that must first be addressed. Since most Backbone Switches today only support 8-16 ports, building a network of this size would require a complex inter-switch linking scheme and would likely introduce serious performance bottlenecks moving data from one end of the network to the other. These problems will certainly be solved in future phases of SAN deployment and the Loop Switch will complement the existing hub and future Backbone Switch in a three-tier network hierarchy of SAN infrastructure components.

By enabling more graduated steps in multi-tier architecture, Loop Switch flattens out the cost of ownership curve as node count increases by providing building blocks for optimal scalability. With Loop Switch, scaling of storage to thousands of terabytes can be accomplished without ever introducing mixed protocols.

Although Backbone Switch vendors are adopting technology to allow direct connection to both FC-AL and Fabric-aware storage devices it adds even more cost to the implementation. In shedding the complexity of Fabric, the Loop Switch becomes a more cost-effective solution. When you consider the additional cost of transitioning to Fabric-aware host adapters and the cost of integration and support, the total cost of acquisition, integration, and support for the Loop Switch drops even further (Figure 7).

Industry Validation Of The Loop Switch

Major system, storage, and networking leaders such as Clariion, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems, Intel, and Seagate have endorsed the Loop Switch technology. These companies view Loop Switch as a positive step for the industry that will accelerate the migration to switching. Storage analysts such as International Data Corporation's research manager, Robert Gray, are also excited about Loop Switch. "IDC believes simple implementation, investment protection, and the ability to apply prior knowledge and practices will accelerate the adoption of SAN switching technology. Fibre Channel Fabric switch benefits have been limited by the complexity, cost, and interoperability issues."

One thing is clear: The technology is based on existing industry standards, SAN switch providers are free to implement a Loop Switch product today as an attractive alternative to the backbone switch.

Joel Warford is the director of product marketing at Gadzoox Networks (San Jose, CA)

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Title Annotation:Technology Information
Author:Warford, Joel
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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