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As IT organizations increase the use of virtualization for consolidation of server infrastructure and to provide higher availability, reduced demands for power, cooling and management costs, I/O bottlenecks are created. The growth in virtualized data centers is accelerating the demand for Fibre Channel storage and the adoption of 16Gb Gen 5 Fibre Channel SANs.

Gen 5 Fibre Channel is helping to alleviate the I/O discrepancies being created and is extending the overall benefits of virtualization by enabling higher consolidation ratios and increasing applications performance. Though some industry experts speculate the relatively slow uptake of Gen 5 Fibre Channel signals the end for the popular storage protocol, most IT professionals recognize the key role Fibre Channel plays in delivering fast and scalable I/O bandwidth for virtualized servers. In addition, a variety of independent industry research confirms the steady, upward trend of Gen 5 Fibre Channel adoption and predicts sustained growth.

Earlier this year, Dell’Oro Senior Analyst Casey Quillin commented on the launch of Cisco’s MDS 9710 Fibre Channel switch saying, “This announcement is very positive news for the market; competition is always good, and it sends the message that Fibre Channel will not be going away anytime soon.” Infonetics Research announced availability and select results from its 2Q13 SAN and High Performance Interconnect Equipment (HPI) report which said that the global SAN equipment market, including Fibre Channel switches and iSCSI and Fibre Channel host bus adapters, totaled US$631 million in 2Q13, an increase of 4% from 1Q13. While this growth projection may not seem huge, Crehan Research1 projects a greater than 40% CAGR for both Gen 5 Fibre Channel adapter revenues and port shipments through 2017.

Server virtualization and Gen 5 Fibre Channel

A key factor driving IT transformation and Gen 5 Fibre Channel growth is server virtualization. Servers based on Intel’s E7 processors and running the latest VMware and Microsoft virtualization software create a new game-changing compute platform. Current versions of VMware’s vSphere support more than 60 vCPUs per physical server, while Microsoft Windows 2012 environments support up to 255 virtual functions per host. These high-performance virtual server platforms support not only new levels of virtual machine (VM) density, but also Tier-1 applications that previously required dedicated server hardware. As densities increase and companies move mission critical Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server and SAP database applications onto virtualized servers, the robust nature of Gen 5 Fibre Channel becomes a requirement for satisfying data integrity and new high bandwidth, low latency I/O requirements.

In a recent end-user survey by Enterprise Strategy Group2 (ESG), 85% of the participants responded that they will increase or maintain investment levels in Fibre Channel SANs. Key drivers noted were performance and reliability over other storage technologies. The ESG survey also confirms this rapid growth in server virtualization. Of all servers capable of being virtualized within their data centers, 41% of respondents reported between 51% and 100% of those servers were virtualized. Over the next three years, 71% of respondents planned to virtualize between 51% and 100% of servers that could be virtualized. In this same three-year time frame, IDC reports that “Nearly 91 million VMs are going to be deployed between now and 2016…” according to Gary Chen, research manager, Cloud and Virtualization System Software at IDC.

Highly virtualized environments generate a tremendous amount of I/O traffic, and as the number of VMs per server increases, so does the volume and complexity of I/O traffic, magnifying the I/O performance bottleneck issue already present in most enterprises. Increased bandwidth is needed to aggregate I/O from multiple VMs from a single host’s data path. To fully optimize a virtualized data center, servers need maximum I/O capacity to support Tier-1 applications that require higher bandwidth and lower latencies. Gen 5 Fibre Channel relieves the I/O and network infrastructure bottlenecks that these new compute and virtualization technologies create and ultimately delivers a major leap in data center efficiency. In addition, Gen 5 Fibre Channel accelerates live migrations, whereas the transfer of a running VM from one physical host to another relies upon fast, reliable data transfers. Fibre Channel’s lossless functionality also ensures I/O connectivity and avoids failed migrations, which can be caused by disruptions and slow performance.

The evolving needs of highly virtualized data centers and storage networks point directly to the advanced capabilities of Gen 5 Fibre Channel. Fibre Channel’s credit-based flow control – one of the exclusive features of Fibre Channel that make it so well suited for block-level storage data networks – delivers data as fast as the destination buffer is able to receive it, without dropping frames or losing data.

Virtualized architectures benefit from storage technologies that support granular Quality of Service (QoS) as an essential attribute to avoid I/O bottlenecks and maintain Service Level Agreements (SLA’s). Fibre Channel is deterministic by design and can be fine-tuned with capabilities that eliminate network congestion and maximize efficiency and performance to guarantee SLAs. In addition, Gen 5 Fibre Channel is backward compatibility with the huge installed base that represents an incredible investment by the world’s largest and most successful companies.

Fibre Channel remains the practical medium for evolving data center storage requirements, and Gen 5 Fibre Channel is ideal for optimizing virtual build-out performance. Gen 5 Fibre Channel continues to empower end-users by delivering architectural flexibility, enabling a more agile, cost-effective and efficient environment. The reasons for datacenter virtualization may vary from one data center to the next, but maximizing that investment should always include Gen 5 Fibre Channel infrastructure for optimum resiliency against growing VM densities and I/O traffic when scaling virtualized environments.

About the author: Tim Lustig is director of corporate marketing at QLogic.

Views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DatacenterDynamics.