The Fibre Channel Industry Association (FCIA) is supporting the development of SATA tunneling technology. It means SATA storage arrays can be connected to servers across a Fibre Channel network. Indeed the SATA arrays can also directly participate as SAN storage.

The ANSI T11 Technical Committee has initiated work to develop a standard called FC-SATA. It will use existing Fibre Channel infrastructures to enable connections to cheap SATA drives for both enterprise and smaller business computing systems. This avoids the need for expensive bridging chips to link SATA drives to Fibre Channel fabrics. Instead SATA tunneling technology will be incorporated into the Fibre Channel I/O controllers.

The FCIA states that FC-SATA is meant to complement the low-cost native Fibre Channel initiative it endorsed last year. IT professionals will be able to choose between low-cost native Fibre Channel or FC-SATA in their tiered storage infrastructure depending on their application needs.

The implication is that this will radically lower costs, one emphasised by FCIA chairman, Werner Glinka: "The development of this standard could drastically lower the cost of storage systems while leveraging existing Fibre Channel investments. This is accomplished by allowing connectivity to SATA drives, and thus permitting tiered storage solutions based on Fibre Channel."

iSCSI threat
The threat that the FCIA is responding to is iSCSI and the use of cheap and well-understood Ethernet as the data transport instead of Fibre Channel with its historically higher cost and additional layer of network infrastructure and complexity.

The hope is that existing Fibre Channel customers will add SATA arrays to their Fibre Channel fabric rather than build an IP storage infrastructure alongside the Fibre Channel one. The FCIA and its members want to bring Fibre Channel to small and medium enterprises and prevent it being confined to an enterprise ghetto by cost and complexity.

SATA drive usage is increasingly popular with enterprise storage system manufacturers looking to create systems that offer greater capacity at a lower cost for nearline storage applications. This is fueling the delivery of multi-tiered storage environments, in which high performance, high availability Fibre Channel disk drives are used for on-line data processing, and lower cost SATA disk drives are used for nearline data retention and other large volume storage needs.

Supporters' club
Mike Smith, Emulex' exec VP of world-wide marketing, said: "We initially proposed the FC-SATA standard because it allows companies to leverage their vast existing investments in field-proven Fibre Channel technology through a tiered-storage solution." It will also allow Emulex to expand the market for its Fibre Channel HBAs, etc.

Some drive manufacturers support FC-SATA. Here's Seagate's VP global marketing, Jeff Loebbaka: "Seagate supports the standard as it will ultimately provide more flexible tiered storage options for the enterprise. Seagate is ready, and offers its NL35 series of low-cost-per gigabyte drives in both Fibre Channel and SATA that can effectively address the needs of any enterprise interested in adding nearline to their data centres."

Well, why not? Customers will still need SATA drives, however they connect to them. And the tiered storage idea means more drive sales. In fact fabric product vendors like Brocade support it too. Anything that bulks up the importance of the fabric is good news for them. Here's Brocade's chief technology officer, Jay Kidd: "By simplifying the integration of FC and SATA drives within an array and a fabric, FC-SATA will extend the value of switched Fibre Channel infrastructure and enable one of the fundamental promises of ILM -- transparent access to a wide range of storage price/performance alternatives."

The FCIA is proving adept at using Fibre Channel to move other protocols. Its FCIP tunneling idea links SANS over IP networks.

Expect serial attached SCSI (SAS) drives to connect to Fibre Channel fabrics with no problem.