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All-Flash Arrays Driving Need for 32Gb Fibre Channel; Interview with QLogic’s Vikram Karvat, Part I

All-flash arrays, cloud computing, cloud storage, and converged and hyper-converged infrastructures may grab many of today’s headlines. But the decades old Fibre Channel protocol is still a foundational technology present in many data centers with it holding steady in the U.S. and even gaining increased traction in countries such as China. In this first installment, QLogic’s Vice President of Products, Marketing and Planning, Vikram Karvat, provides some background as to why fibre channel (FC) remains relevant and how all-flash arrays are one of the forces driving the need for 32Gb FC.

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Jerome: Vik, thanks for taking time out of your schedule to share a bit about 32Gb fibre channel. Before we begin, for the benefit of DCIG’s readers, can you share a bit about QLogic and what has been going on over there for the past few years?

Vikram: Thanks, Jerome. Many of your readers are probably familiar with QLogic from the fibre channel side as it has continued to be a preeminent player in that space. However, QLogic has had a few changes in the last few years.

Mostly notably, QLogic acquired Brocade’s Fibre Channel HBA assets about two years ago. As a result of concluding that transaction in early 2014, QLogic was able to move that relationship to a new level in terms of technical cooperation, alignment on road maps and technologies, etc.

The other significant change was that QLogic acquired Broadcom’s Ethernet controller assets. QLogic already had its own portfolio of Ethernet controllers with which it had been relatively successful on the host side, and very, very successful on the storage side; but the Broadcom assets brought a different level of scale to our overall Ethernet portfolio and immediately put QLogic in a very, very strong number two position in Ethernet.

The net net is that today QLogic has the number one position in Fibre Channel and the number two position in the 10Gb Ethernet on the host/server side of the business. This is important because it allows QLogic to look at certain types of technology that would benefit from end-to-end integration. It also has some interesting benefits as QLogic moves forward.

Jerome: Tell me about 32Gb Fibre Channel. What is happening on that front?

Vikram: The next instantiation of the Fibre Channel roadmap is Gen 6 (32Gb) Fibre Channel (FC) which QLogic is releasing today. A lot of people ask me, “Why do you need Gen 6 FC? Do we need more performance?

There is always some of that. You do need more performance to support today’s latest technologies, such as multi-core processors and multichannel memory on servers, but then you also have the move towards non-volatile storage in servers, as well as in the storage arrays. Further, databases just keep getting bigger and bigger and the response time requirements for accessing these content repositories keeps getting shorter. Gen 6 FC performance advantages play directly into all of these demands from both a bandwidth and an IOPS perspective.

But there’s more than just performance advantages with the shift to Gen 6 FC. IT organizations are under tremendous OPEX pressure. They need to maintain service-level agreements (SLAs) but with fewer people so they have to find ways to work more efficiently. Further, they are under pressure to increase scalability and deliver faster provisioning of new storage on demand.

This is where some of the features and functions that QLogic offers with its new Gen 6 FC adapters deliver as much value and, in some cases, maybe even more value than the performance benefits of Gen 6 FC.

Jerome: Isn’t QLogic introducing new technology and innovating in a market that is in decline?

Vikram: There has been a general sense in the industry that Fibre Channel is on a steep decline. I would propose to you today that that may not be entirely true. It’s certainly not the growing market that it was a decade ago, but it’s not ending any time soon.

The data points here just serve to underscore that. On the external block-based storage side, a lot of Fibre Channel connectivity has actually gone up in terms of a mix of total ports. Some of that is driven by the still significant need for Fibre Channel in traditional arrays.

Some of this demand is also being driven by all-flash arrays. Almost 80 percent of these are connected via Fibre Channel. Then, if you look at Fibre Channel just in raw terms of how many Fibre Channel ports there are per unit of storage capacity, it’s actually higher on all-flash arrays than it is on traditional storage arrays, just because of the performance levels associated with flash.

The result is that we’ve actually seen a slight uptick over the last three years in overall mix of Fibre Channel connectivity on external storage controllers. The actual number of port shipments has been holding steady for the last couple of years. We expect the same to hold true for 2016, with just slightly north of two million ports of server side HBA connectivity. Again, this might take some people by surprise because there’s been the general sense that the market has been in decline, but the numbers actually show that from a standard HBA perspective, it’s pretty stable.

In Part II of this interview series, Vikram shares his thoughts about industry initiatives to directly map the NVMe drive over Fibre Channel fabric.

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Jerome M. Wendt

About Jerome M. Wendt

President & Lead Analyst of DCIG, Inc.

Jerome Wendt is the President and Lead Analyst of DCIG Inc., an independent storage analyst and consulting firm. Mr. Wendt founded the company in September 2006.

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