Secret 4Gbps Fibre Channel road maps might not lead anywhere

Hewlett-Packard Co. and Seagate Technology Inc. released a joint announcement in November 1998, touting 2Gbps Fibre Channel products and plans for 4Gbps technology.

But it seems the joint announcement was more out of coincidence than a partnership, the promise of 2Gbps products is an early one, and the idea of 4Gbps is about as solid as smoke.

“This is not a formal partnership or formal alliance,” admitted Rich Lautzenheiser, the strategic marketing manager in HP’s Fibre Channel solutions group. He said both companies just happened to have a simultaneous teleconference on the matter.

“What the press release basically says is HP and Seagate…are jointly announcing technology road maps to go to 2Gbps Fibre Channel and beyond.”

But for the moment, those road maps are drawn mostly in invisible ink. Neither HP nor Seagate would provide significant detail as to what is being developed in the 2Gbps arena.

Lautzenheiser said HP is developing its line of Tachyon Fibre Channel protocol controller chips and host bus adapter cards, and hopes to have 2Gbps products in this line available in the second half of 1999. He said the company is not announcing further details at this time.

Dave Anderson, director of systems storage architecture at Seagate in Minneapolis, also was unable to provide specifics on what is being developed.

“We’re working on disk drives that will offer the ability to run at 2Gbps as well as 1Gbps. This is still a far way off. We’re hoping to have some things developers can use next year (1999),” Anderson said, during an interview in December. He said the second half of 1999 sounds like a reasonable time frame for delivery.

As for the 4Gbps part of the announcement, neither company has much to say. Lautzenheiser said it’s possible by the time 4Gbps is within reach, HP might skip it and go directly to 10Gbps.

“Our focus is 2Gbps. We’re really not saying a lot beyond that other than, in general, we do intend to go beyond that,” Lautzenheiser said.

Similarly, Anderson said: “At the drive level, 4Gbps won’t happen for a while. We’ll concentrate on getting 2Gbps to work.”

So the announcement that implied a partnership for some radical new speeds in Fibre Channel is really a statement that HP and Seagate are doing the same thing as everyone else in the Fibre Channel arena: continuing development of the faster speeds that the technical standards already account for.

“We’re not really paving new ground in terms of evolving the standard. What we’re announcing is our intention to begin developing and implementing products that meet the 2Gbps and 4Gbps Fibre Channel spec,” Lautzenheiser said.

Nick Allen, vice-president and research director at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said he ignored the announcement because it isn’t very significant. He said even the proposed delivery dates of the second half of 1999 aren’t worth much excitement.

“This is just a little bit of a stake in the ground…Really what they’re saying is ‘We’re gonna be there,'” Allen said.

Allen theorized that perhaps the companies feel a need to make early announcements to alert designers to the coming products.

“Seagate and HP are very, very far down on the food chain for their raw technology. It’s disk drives and interface chips. Thus, they get chosen much earlier in a design cycle. So if somebody’s building PCI cards for the next generation of Fibre Channel, it’s Tachyon chips and disk drives that need to get qualified early in the game,” Allen said.

“Now would be the appropriate time to begin to create market awareness.”

As to the apparent hype over road maps leading to nowhere, Allen said such behaviour was common in the Fibre Channel arena when it began a few years ago, but is not as common now.