The fibre channel storage industry is being bombarded with a fresh set of acronyms and buzzwords, but amid the flurry of new products from Hewlett-Packard (HP), Compaq, Sun and EMC, it is hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
IT managers are interested in the technology because it is more flexible than current SCSI technology which offers a limited storage distance of 25 metres from the server.
Because of this it is hard to link as many drives to mainframes, minis and NT servers as data centres might wish. But fibre channel offers far greater distances and higher speeds.
However the vendors have not yet agreed on a standard and IT managers, at least, do not want another set of heteregeneous systems which they have to link together.
According to EMC, the way round that problem is to develop solutions at the storage level to fit the different fibre systems the server vendors are pushing. It claimed last week that revenues from its Symmetrix enterprise storage systems with fibre channel connectivity exceeded $170 million for the second quarter.
Said Douglas Fierro, manager of product marketing at EMC US: "Our customers have absolutely accepted our solution to fibre channel. We have qualified hubs for both HP and Sun and now the walls of data centres are virtual walls."
He believes that as server vendors come out with their fibre channel-based systems, EMC would develop ways of connecting fast storage systems to them.
EMC claims its approach is unique. But Fierro acknowledged there were questions over standards. "Like most open system architectures, fibre channel is pretty flexible in its definition. Sun has taken one direction and HP has taken another direction.
"When you look at fibre channel systems, you have to look at all the individual components. We are taking on our shoulders the qualification of the entire environment."
He added: "We don't force our customers to be the integrators. Once we've tested those environments they can all work together through our storage solution. Today, we can do HP, Sun and Windows NT and connect hubs to Sun. That does put us in a very powerful position and we'll step up to that responsibility."
Fierro said EMC is currently focusing on what it describes as the leaders in the marketplace. "When vendors get on the fibre channel bandwagon, we'll take on that work," he said. "We're interested in networks and we have products other than storage systems in the pipeline."
But if EMC thinks it will have everything its own way in the data centre and be able to continue collecting 50 per cent plus gross margins, according to Compaq, it can think again.
Donal Madden, enterprise product manager at Compaq UK, said that while there were different flavours of fibre channel, EMC will not be able to dominate the market.
"EMC is saying it has something which will connect everything but Compaq with [Digital's] StorageWorks will argue the same thing," he said. "When we took on StorageWorks, we saw that supporting multiple platforms was important. IBM has only just realised that."
Madden said Compaq was used to "coming in under the radar screen" and maintained it would be able to surprise EMC.
According to EMC, the market for storage systems in 2001 will be worth $35 billion. Of that, large systems will account for $14 billion, PC and server consolidation $12 billion, with the remainder being accounted for by storage-related software.
Madden realises the market is huge. He said: "In the last four years, storage revenue as part of server sales is going up in leaps and bounds. We are the number one storage company in the world. An EMC megabyte is at least 10 times the cost of a Compaq megabyte and a terabyte sale is nothing we get particularly excited about these days. The game could be up for EMC now we have multi-platform support."
Senior executives at EMC acknowledged last week that Compaq, rather than its traditional rivals such as IBM, Sun and StorageTek, is a threat to its business.
But it has one advantage over Compaq that will prove hard for the upstart company to beat.
In the last few years it has forged alliances with a large number of midrange players including HP, NCR, Sequent, Bull, Siemens Nixdorf, Unisys and ICL. It also supports IBM's S/390, RS and AS/400 range as well as Sun and Intel based boxes, plus Digital servers.
That could be a hard proposition for Compaq to beat, particularly because of EMC's very close relationship with Seagate, which is a pioneer in fibre channel technology.
Michael Ruettgers, EMC's chief executive is confident that it will be able to resist attacks from commoditisers like Compaq. He said EMC will continue to develop platforms for any servers that IT managers need to connect and that fibre channel is the way of the future for data centres.
Although IBM recently announced it will move into the fibre channel arena, and has hard drive technology to match Seagate's, Ruettgers thinks Big Blue is out of the game.
IBM, he said, seems to have lost the will to compete against EMC and it will prove a tough task for Compaq to unite the disparate technologies culled from Tandem, Digital and Intel-based platforms. The fight is on.
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