Fibre Channel Surfing

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Fibre channel, fibre channel, where art thou fibre channel? If fibre channel were actually something that could get lost, that would be a great opening, but a better question for the purposes of this article might be, “When art thou fibre channel?’ As in, when is fibre channel the right choice to solve a storage problem?



Chris Lionetti, Microsoft senior SAN engineer, said fibre channel is a protocol, a language that is used to connect two devices. For instance, fibre channel would enable a server and an initiator (somebody who wants to talk) to talk to a target or a piece of storage.



“It’s a language, but it’s designed to be extremely expandable, Lionetti said. “Whereas SCSI, which stands for ‘small computer systems interface,’ was really designed for a few devices, fibre channel is designed for hundreds, if not thousands or billions, of devices.



“It’s designed not for one host or a couple of hosts but an infinite number of hosts. It’s pretty much the de facto standard for things like clustering nowadays. It’s kind of an enabling technology that lets you do a lot of other things, as well.”



Although Lionetti said fibre channel is very popular when you need it, the real issue for IT professionals looking for storage career advice and not storage technology solutions is whether the fibre channel language will be a viable direction or path to pursue.



“The person who wants to get into this field would actually want to learn about SAN, storage area networking,” Lionetti said. “Fibre channel just happens to be the most popular method of making a SAN.”



The fibre channel topology, or the layout of how you connect all your devices so your host can see your storage, enables you to map and connect everything together to fully realize the benefits of the hardware.



Lionetti said it’s important to remember things in the storage world that people normally haven’t considered. For instance, in the storage world, you directly connect everything. In the fibre channel world, it’s more of a SAN, which means networking terms play a role, as do networking ideas.



“Something that everybody in networking understands is oversubscription,” Lionetti said. “To storage people, that may be a new term, but oversubscription is something in a storage area network that you have to be very, very concerned with.



“Oversubscription is simply overloading your buses (the physical connection between the two devices) to the point where you could theoretically bottleneck but in actuality, because you know what your performance is, you wouldn’t really bottleneck. It’s knowing how far you can push it and where you can push beyond.”



Ralph Luchs, Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) education director, said if you’re considering fibre channel as an area of specialization, there are many different certifications that might aid your career cause.



He also said, though, that storage professionals should remember fibre channel is only one way to connect storage networks, have devices talk to servers, etc. There are other opportunities in use in the market.



“Some of them go over a regular network, some of it goes through a SCSI (small computer system interface),” Luchs explained. “Fibre channel is just one of the standards. If what you’re looking for is to be specifically trained on that standard, there are a number of certifications out there from places such as the Fibre Channel Industry Association and vendors out there that specialize in providing training on fibre channel.



“However, for storage professionals, especially if they’re thinking they’d like to get into the storage networking arena, just getting certified on fibre channel would probably not be the place where I would start. I would suggest going with a little bit more broader approach.”



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