Emulex' new switch-on-a-chip technology can make very large tiered fibre channel drive arrays. It can also save the cost of front-of-fabric switches for blade servers and storage arrays.

Currently drive arrays can only have up to 126 Fibre Channel drives connected in an Arbitrated Loop (FC-AL). Emulex's FibreSpy SOC 804S can connect a thousand or more Fibre Channel drives into a single array. This switch-on-a-chip (SOC) technology means storage suppliers can create a drive array with several classes of Fibre Channel drive in a tiered structure. There could be fast - and expensive - disks, middling speed and cost disks and slow speed, high-capacity disks to provide three levels of storage for three types of data.

There could be on-line, near-line, and reference data held in the same array, which would suit information lifecycle management (ILM) approaches to storage. It also spreads the fixed costs of storage controllers across many more drives.

FibreSpy is a development of Emulex' existing InSpeed switching technology.

Fujitsu has already signed up to use the Emulex technology in its Eternus arrays. But none of the big three array providers - EMC, HDS, and IBM - have signed up yet. It's possible that Engenio, an existing Emulex InSpeed user, will sign up.

FibreSpy SOC 804E products can be used to integrate SAN switching into the front of a storage array. They can also be used to integrate SAN switches with server blades. Both uses would obviate the need for customers to buy separate SAN switches to connect server blades and storage arrays to a SAN fabric.

The 804 has four speed-sensitive ports capable of supporting 1, 2 or 4Gbit/s. Each chip also supports an inter-switch link. Four 804 chips can be linked together to provide a 20-port switch. The chips also include an ARM processor plus RAM so that storage applications can run on them - a storage supplier could possibly provide support for virtualisation.

Richard Villars, IDC's VP storage systems research, said FibreSpy is cost-effective for, "storage system suppliers that want to address a broad range of applications ranging from blade servers to high-end storage systems." Such suppliers, previously limited to small scale and low-end arrays, will now be able to greatly enlarge the capacity of their arrays and provide high-end or enterprise-class functions.

System suppliers could also set up bladed servers and Fibre Channel storage arrays in a SAN without using external switches at all, thus lowering costs substantially. Dell could be interested in this.