Broadcom Debuts 4-Gig Fibre Channel Switches

Broadcom has unveiled what it claims are the first 4 Gigabit per second (4 Gbps or 4-Gig) Fibre Channel fabric switches.

“I think any new player – and Broadcom is a nobody in storage at the moment – has to do something eye-popping. This announcement … shows that Broadcom wants to play and they are sticking their neck way out to do so.”

Arun Taneja, The Taneja Group

Broadcom says its BCM8440 fabric switch, with low power and board space requirements, is suited for embedded applications and network half-rack form factors, making for easier deployment of redundant networks.

The BCM8441 fabric switch lets a single Fibre Channel controller read and
write to multiple drives at the same time, improving the performance of Fibre Channel storage platforms and arrays and reducing the number of controllers required in an array. This differs from legacy port-bypass circuit (PBC) and loop-switch architectures that allow a Fibre Channel controller to read or write to only one disk drive at a time, resulting in much lower throughput. Broadcom says its design delivers cost savings by reducing the number of controllers in an array.

For Fibre Channel storage systems that employ RAID (redundant array of independent disks) technology in which information is read from and written to multiple disks for greater reliability, the ability of the BCM8441 to communicate with multiple drives at one time provides as much as a 300% improvement in the number of transactions per second and doubles the throughput of solutions using either loop switch or PBC architectures, according to Broadcom. The BCM8441 also eliminates the loop switch restriction of 126 drives, paving the way for greater storage capacity in the future.

“With the recent introduction of small form factor storage disk drives, coupled with regulatory and compliance requirements that are driving greater storage demands, array densities are tripling and quadrupling, forcing vendors to look at new architectures,” states Michael McDonald, senior director of Broadcom’s Fibre Channel Storage business line.

Broadcom is also pushing its fabric switches for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), citing an IDC projection that Fibre Channel SMB port sales will grow at an 80% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2008. Gartner/Dataquest expects 4-Gig Fibre Channel to become the dominant speed for new Fibre Channel products in two years, and to grow at a CAGR of almost 300% through 2007.

Despite the fact that 4-Gig (4G) will cost about the same as and is backwards-compatible with 1- and 2-Gbps (1G/2G) Fibre Channel technology, some analysts think the demand for 4G isn’t there yet.

“The importance of this switch is that it makes Broadcom the first company to ship a 4-Gig switch,” says Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at the Taneja Group. “The incumbents have not been very keen on developing these since there are no disk drives or HBAs that support 4-Gig right now. Therefore, one cannot make a full SAN that operates at 4-Gig.”

“The customer has not been pushing anyone to do a 4-Gig SAN, as they are barely using the 2-Gig speeds,” Taneja continues. Competition from 10-Gigabit Ethernet and the need for chipmakers to produce just one type of chip are driving 4-Gig, he adds.

“So while the drive towards 4-Gig is not coming from the end user, the transition will nevertheless happen because the chip guys want it to happen,” Taneja says. “But everyone is waiting for the other SAN pieces to be available before they develop their own 4-Gig products. Broadcom breaks that stalemate.”

“I think any new player – and Broadcom is a nobody in storage at the moment – has to do something eye-popping,” Taneja continues. “That is why this announcement is significant. It shows that Broadcom wants to play and they are sticking their neck way out to do so. I am happy to see a little competition. All in all, the storage industry is getting to be an oligopoly.”

Nancy Marrone-Hurley, senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group, agrees that 4-Gig’s time hasn’t yet arrived.

“Although we expect that at some point 4G will be pervasive in FC SANs, it really isn’t an immediate requirement for most SAN users,” Marrone-Hurley
says. “Currently, 2G SANs provide more than enough bandwidth in just about every case, and most users we talk with say they will move to 4G only if it
is completely transparent, with minimal disruption and cost incurred in order to upgrade.”

“With over 80% of users preferring to stay with a single vendor for their storage networking needs,” Marrone-Hurley continues, “we expect that users will migrate to 4G en masse when the major vendors upgrade to 4G and provide a seamless migration path. New users may adapt 4G now if they are just implementing SANs, and in that case vendors like Broadcom may have the ability to get some greenfield accounts.”

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