Emulex unleashes a FibreSpy

New FC switch-on-a-chip family will spread pervasively among devices and controllers

I have to confess one of my weaknesses: Small, compact products based on advanced technologies fascinate me.

A good example of this is the Inspeed SOC (switch on a chip) that squeezes FC (Fibre Channel) switching capability into a square inch. That technology grabbed me the very first time I saw the product, about three years ago.

Inspeed has since become part of Emulex, but the chip maintained its brand name and has attained a significant market penetration with two products, one of which essentially replaces the slow pace of FC-AL (Fibre Channel arbitrated loop); the other offers switching capabilities to the different drawers of a storage array.

Recently Emulex began shipping fabric switches centered around the same technology, which obviously creates more business opportunities. However, the Inspeed chip is still doing quite well, as I learned during a recent conversation with Emulex's Bob Brencic, senior director of switch marketing, and Kevin Weinand, product marketing manager at FibreSpy.

For those of us who love statistics, Emulex shared some exciting results at that briefing. The number of Inspeed SOC ports shipped in the first-three quarters of 2004 surpasses the number of ports shipped by all other FC switch vendors combined. Another interesting data point: Emulex shipped more than 3 million ports in three years, but took only six months to ship the last 1 million -- a clear sign of customers' growing interest in SOC.

Next year could be even better, according to Weinand, because Emulex is preparing the FibreSpy family of tiny products, which will pack four FC ports, a processor, memory, and switching capability (among other features) into just 31 square millimeters -- slightly larger than a square inch.

According to Weinand, by using a different microcode a FibreSpy chip can solve different problems while maintaining the same hardware. This obviously simplifies production and fulfillment of customers' orders.

One of the products built on the new chips is a mouthful: FibreSpy SOC 804S SuperScalar Tiered Storage Application Solution. Luckily, explaining the concept is simple: The chip replaces an FC-AL between storage controllers and devices.

One advantage of 804S compared with FC-AL is its capability of handling different speeds. As we know, all devices attached to an FC arbitrated loop must work at the same speed, but each of those four ports on FibreSpy can automatically adjust to, and work with, devices of different speeds including 1Gbps, 2 Gbps, and 4 Gbps.

In addition, each FibreSpy port can attach as many as 125 devices, which, leaving one port for the controller, gives you access to 375 devices without severe loss of performance. By comparison, FC-AL can theoretically hook 126 devices, but performance degradation will stop actual implementations well before that limit.

To provide more aggregate bandwidth and to support a larger number of devices, customers can group as many as five FibreSpy chips and, quite remarkably, treat that miniature fabric as a single entity. Makes you wonder if anyone will ever fully exploit that aggregate bandwidth and capacity, but it's good to know that the possibility is there.

Another intriguing product is called FibreSpy SOC 804E Integrated Switch Port Expansion Application Solution (It's another mouthful). That could translate to "Plug something else in your disk array without using another FC switch." In fact, one of the possible applications is to add a few spare ports to a disk array, making it possible to connect other FC devices such as a tape library or second-tier storage.

Obviously, SMB customers wish they could get similar cost-saving features, and Emulex anticipates that many OEMs will work to make that a reality. Another likely deployment for the 804E is providing storage connectivity in a server blade environment, another quickly expanding area.

The first end-user products based on FibreSpy technology should appear by the middle of next year. I'll keep my eyes open, but until then please drop me a line and share a vote on FibreSpy. I say it's pervasive technology; do you agree?

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