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Fibre Channel Keeps Major Cloud Provider Up and Running

By Anon Anon posted 11-18-2014 06:42 AM


In recent months, I’ve been regularly writing about how Fibre Channel, despite claims of its pending demise, remains a core technology that drives the data centers of dynamic and cutting edge businesses. And you can’t get much more dynamic and cutting-edge than Rackspace, one of the biggest names, providers and innovators in the world of cloud computing.


Fibre Channel remains a key component of cutting edge data centers and will continue to be a major driver in future designs, and this is certainly true at Rackspace. A major provider of open cloud systems and storage, Rackspace needs their data centers to be able to handle lots of data, at high levels of performance, with no downtime. And while new technologies have tried to push Fibre Channel out, at Rackspace it is a key technology for their storage team.


I recently had the opportunity to speak to Rackspace’s James Howard, Senior Storage Architect and Eric Aitken, Senior Manager, Storage and Backup, about their use of Fibre Channel systems from Brocade in the services that they provide to their enterprise customers. As Rackspace has probably one of the most high-demand and intensive data center environments that one could imagine, it’s no surprise that they regularly upgrade as new Fibre Channel technologies come on the scene, Howard said “The upgrade paths have been driven by our biggest area, which is scale. Each time a new generation comes we can get bigger and bigger with our environment.”


When Gen 5 Fibre Channel was introduced, Howard said that Rackspace was able to quickly benefit from several of the main improvements in that technology, “The advent of a lot of the proactive troubleshooting tools in Gen 5. That’s been a big motivator. When we can use the gear in the middle to get a better picture of how things are going from end-to-end. And that’s starting to get leveraged more and more heavily as we progress through our usage of Gen 5.”


And the benefits from the move to Gen 5 Fibre Channel didn’t stop there. According to Howard, they were able to, in some cases, boost their connectivity capacity by a factor of three, “With the ability to get up to numbers that are substantially higher than what I could have done even two years ago, relative to connectivity, it’s given me the ability to treat a very large facility as a single operating entity, as opposed to having to break it up and consider part one and two and three of a site as three independently managed objects. We actually had that in one of our facilities and it was complicated, to say the least, in dealing with environments that started to span all parts of that building.”


Though Rackspace has depended on Fibre Channel to be the core of their storage connectivity capabilities, like any smart business, they keep abreast of all emerging alternative technologies that come on the scene, testing and evaluating their potential fit in the data center. But so far, no challenger has been able to unseat Fibre Channel in their data center. When I asked Eric Aitken about the alternative technologies he’s evaluated, he said “In a best case scenario, it brings nothing exceptional above and beyond what we’re already using. In most cases, there are things missing that means it just won’t fit in our environment.”


While alternative technologies haven’t been able to spark much interest in the Rackspace storage team, they are very interested in some of the key improvements expected in Gen 6 Fibre Channel, which will double current speeds to 32 Gbps (with technology that also enables speeds of 128 Gbps), as well as other benefits such as improved energy efficiency, increased reliability and better disaster recovery capabilities. Howard said, “I can imagine that one of the key places will be with virtualization technologies, as servers get bigger and badder and we can get more and more and more virtual instances into single devices trying to get back to common storage. Some of the improvements of Gen 6 are going to be critical to making that happen without having thirty racks of gear. We’ll be paying close attention and likely wanting to be, if not instantaneous early adopters, definitely early evaluators of Gen 6. “


So there you have it. A cutting edge cloud service provider business with data center performance and reliability demands that dwarf those faced by most enterprises is relying on Fibre Channel as the key connectivity technology for their storage infrastructure, both now and in the future. Not only is Fibre Channel not facing its demise, it looks to be in an excellent position to thrive in emerging data centers. As virtualization, cloud, improvements in fast storage architectures such as all-flash arrays and other new technologies continue to increase the demands put on businesses, the speed, reliability and scalability of Fibre Channel will mean that it will continue to be a key element of the leading data centers of the future.


Jim Rapoza is the Aberdeen Group’s Senior Research Analyst and Editorial Director.  For over twenty years he has been using, testing, and writing about the newest technologies in software, enterprise hardware and the Internet.