Sierra Logic Makes SATA Play Nicely with Fibre Channel

Fibre Channel drives have long been known to be a critical yet relatively expensive piece of hardware. A new “plug and play” serial ATA (SATA) hard drive adapter from Sierra Logic announced Monday aims to change that.

The Sierra Logic BR-2401 is a plug and play connector for SATA hard drives that allows them to be plugged into a Fibre Channel slot and work with a Fibre Channel system.

Back in October, Sierra Logic launched its Silicon Storage Router (SR-1216), an integrated silicon Fibre Channel to SATA solution. In comparison, the BR-2401 is a canister-level FC-to-SATA emulation solution that fits on the end of a standard SATA drive.

According to Sierra Logic, the SR-1216 allows SATA drives in the same form factor to offer the same functionality as a native FC drive.

“That’s really what we mean by real true plug and play SATA drive value, plugging into an FC slot and giving you the features that you would normally get with an FC drive at obviously tremendous cost savings,” said Bryan Cowger, VP of marketing and co-founder of Sierra Logic.

“The beauty of Sierra Logic’s approach is that it allows the use of HDDs from various vendors, even within the same system, because the new silicon actually hides the differences and makes them all function like a unified Fibre Channel drive,” said Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at the Taneja Group.

Cowger said enterprises demand high availability and high data integrity features that are normally not part of the raw SATA mechanism, so Sierra Logic added them to the BR-2401. The FC to SATA connector provides dual active 4 Gb FC ports and 3 Gb SATA (Gen-II) speeds, which means that SATA and FC drives can be mixed in the same storage enclosure.

“For high availability, dual FC ports means it can be communicating simultaneously with redundant RAID controllers coming through redundant loops and I/O cards, so if anything fails on one side, I/O traffic can continue to perform on the other port,” Cowger told Enterprise Storage Forum.

The BR-2401 also provides data integrity checks and SATA-II native comment queuing (NCQ) support. Native command queuing is something that all FC and SCSI drives support today, an enterprise-class feature designed around optimizing the I/Os per second that the drive is able to support. The goal for Sierra Logic is to enable the same levels of data integrity on SATA as FC drives.

Though Sierra Logic’s solution enhances an “off the shelf” SATA drive with data redundancy and integrity, it’s not exactly the same as an FC drive.

“It maximizes the performance between the drive itself and the FC loop,” said Bob Whitson, CEO and co-founder of Sierra Logic.

Cowger explained the difference as a matter of application usage. Disk drives today fall into one of two categories: traditional high-performance enterprise-class storage such as FC and SCSI, or cost-effective bulk drives like parallel and serial ATA. The FC and SCSI drives typically spin at 10,000 to 15,000 RPM with a very robust head and disk assembly so they can handle a lot of random I/O traffic with good performance. The bulk category generally spins at 7200 RPM and is more focused on bandwidth, capacity and cost than overall performance.

“Performance-wise, where we see the application for SATA drives in terms of plugging into FC systems is very much bandwidth-focused applications like backup and reference data,” Cowger said — applications that move a lot of data back and forth and stream a lot of data on and off the disk drive.

Sierra Logic sees market dynamics such as cost and supply as the drivers that will help push SATA — and the BR-2401 — into enterprises.

“What we’re seeing is our customers rely on multiple sources of disk drive suppliers when they start putting together their storage system,” Whitson said. “This gives them the freedom of choice, and it enables our customers to release 4 Gb Fibre Channel products in 2005.”

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