SGI is threatening a shake-up of the storage industry by including fabric switches within its disk arrays, effectively bypassing a large segment of the market.

Currently, customers building storage networks need three components: servers, storage arrays and fabric switches. SGI's disk arrays will soon come with embedded Fibre Channel switches, removing the need to deal with a separate switch vendor, such as Brocade, and simplifying acquisition, implementation and support.

SGI arrays are supplied by LSI Logic Storage Systems division - slated to become Engenio as part of a spin-off from LSI. The arrays get switched in a two-stage process, according to Craig Schultz, storage hardware platforms manager for SGI. "There will be a switched back-end going on the JBOD side [Just a bunch of disks - an array without a controller] direct to drive enclosures in the late summer of this year. The front-end switch will be in the first half of 2005."

The back-end switch probably uses Emulex SBOD technology, although Emulex did not comment. The front-end switch connecting the RAID controller to the outside world is, Schultz says, LSI's "own internally-developed and is FC2 and 4Gbit/s". It is possible that the same Emulex controller, is used for this as for the switches inside the array.

It is unlikely that LSI Logic (Engenio) is combining the array and switch exclusively for SGI, so expect to see other OEM partners such as StorageTek offer the same product soon. Internally, switched arrays respond faster to requests and ship more data per time period. Embedding an external switch makes life easier for customers but doesn't of itself increase array performance.

This can be seen as part of making SANs easier to purchase, implement and own. It is possible that, longer term, Emulex has designs on the fabric switch market, that being a missing link as it were, between its server-side HBAs and storage side switches and I/O controllers.

Fujitsu, NEC, Network Appliance and Xyratex are said to have signed up to ship switched disk arrays using the Emulex Inspeed technology. The InSpeed 422 is the, "first 4Gbit/s embedded storage switch on the market", according to Brian Reed, VP business development at Emulex. He says that Emulex, "has five unannounced disk array vendors" signed up for its switching solution. IBM, EMC and two other suppliers are using its controllers.