Fibre Channel may be gone in a few years: EMC

Company execs make predictions about future storage trends

EMC executives believe that Fibre Channel storage could be a thing of the past in just a few years as organisations increase adoption of flash memory for I/O-intensive applications, while storing less-frequently used data on inexpensive SATA drives.

In 2008, storage vendors such as EMC were saying that flash was about 20 times more expensive than Fibre Channel on a per-gigabyte basis, but worth the price for some applications because of superior data access speeds and lower power use.

But prices are dropping quickly as the storage industry places more research funding into building solid-state drives (SSD) capable of standing up to enterprise workloads. Last year the price of enterprise flash was about 10 times that of Fibre Channel drives, and now it's getting down near the 7-times range and the gap is expected to continue to narrow, EMC storage executives said in a recent interview at the company's Massachusetts headquarters.

Once flash achieves price parity "we think that's the end of Fibre Channel drives because you'll have price points that are very attractive" for flash and SATA, said Frank Hauck, an executive vice president in charge of EMC's storage division. "You won't need a Fibre Channel drive."

The storage industry is probably still two or three years away from that happening, the EMC executives said.

EMC has invested in several flash start-ups and its aims for flash include improving management of consumer-grade, multi-level cell flash chips, which are less expensive than the single-cell chips used today for enterprise products. More advanced wear leveling and error correction can improve the viability of the less expensive consumer flash.

Usage of SSD will accelerate once administrators don't have to manually move data from flash to hard disk drives, Richard Napolitano, president of EMC's Unified Storage Division, said at the conference. Even today, many of EMC's enterprise and mid-tier customers are buying storage arrays with flash. Typically, a customer deployment contains about 80% hard disk drives and 20% SSD, according to EMC.

There has been some speculation that flash and SSD will eliminate the need for storage tiering, but Napolitano says even if Fibre Channel goes away, he believes future datacentres will still embrace multiple tiers of storage and need automation to manage movement of data across the tiers.

Tiers could include cloud storage services, EMC's Data Domain deduplication devices, and various boxes with specific functions, such as compression of data.

"Our real vision is that you have many more tiers," Napolitano said. "You have a compressed tier. You have a de-duped tier. You have a spun-down tier."

The spun-down tier would consist of disk drives that power off when not in use, therefore using no power, like tape.

Besides flash, one of EMC's main concerns is adapting storage systems to the needs of virtualised servers. The consolidation of multiple virtual servers onto fewer physical machines has placed new strains on data storage, while the ability to move virtual machines from one physical box to another introduces the problem of making sure storage associated with an application moves as well.

"The transition to virtualised is causing many things to be re-architected," Napolitano said. "We love that. We love that because hard problems are where we can make money and [virtualisation] is causing problems."

EMC owns VMware, maker of the most popular x86 hypervisor. But VMware is operated as a separate company, to an extent, and is free to partner with EMC's rivals in the storage business.

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