Emulex has released a switch-on-a-chip that will let storage vendors mix and match disk arrays with different performance characteristics. The switch also allows users to upgrade their storage without throwing out existing systems.

Jed Dobson, a system architect, said he likes the idea of switching between Fibre Channel arrays that perform at different levels within the same enclosure, because it would let him tailor storage service levels to end users according to how critical the data is.

Dobson has about 12TB of storage on several Sun arrays, and his switches serve up to 2Gbit/s. "My next purchase of Fibre Channel switches will probably be in the 4Gbit/s range, so the chip is attractive," Dobson said. "I have about 64 ports of 2Gbit/s Fibre Channel storage, so I'd probably want to keep those because it was a pretty big cost."

Rick Villars, an analyst at IDC, said the advent of Emulex's FibreSpy SOC 804 family of embedded storage switches will give vendors and users more flexibility, especially in larger storage arrays where there are hundreds of disks that aren't always immediately populated. Users could continue to grow the arrays as disk technology develops, he said.

"Long-term end users will have the option to use a lower-cost disk sub-system," Villars said. "You replace the controller and the disk and the switches, but you don't have to pull the whole box out."

Bob Brencic, senior director of switch marketing at Emulex, said the chips come with four Fibre Channel ports each but can be configured in five-chip clusters for up to 20 ports in a single storage enclosure.

The switched chip also allows array manufacturers to break Fibre Channel's 126-device barrier to allow thousands of disk drives to be attached to storage controllers in boxes, Brencic said.

He added that the internal switching will also simplify storage management because IT administrators can use the native management tools of the array instead of having to deal with external switch management tools. "OEMs can build those storage management tools right into the chip," he said.