6-Gig SAS Coming to an Array Near You

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Disk and component manufacturers are getting excited about 6Gb/s Serial Attached SCSCI (SAS), but storage users will have to wait a while to see what the excitement is all about.

“Going to 6G SAS is the next natural evolutionary step for SAS,” said Henry Fabian, executive director for enterprise product marketing at Seagate. “6 Gig SAS offers a 2X increase in speed.”

As the next-generation storage interface to Ultra320 parallel SCSI, SAS was originally intended for internal and external direct-attached storage (DAS) environments. But its ability to support SAS and SATAdrives has led to its rapid adoption as a drive interface in external storage. That led to a whole new world of storage tiering — SAS for speed and higher availability, and SATA for high capacity and bulk storage.

“While parallel SCSI was limited to DAS environments, SAS brings new features that are opening up the possibility of SAS in SAN-like deployments, which you might call scalable, sharable DAS,” said David So, product marketing manager for the storage components group at LSI Corp. “Such architectures are already being shipped in some blade systems today.”

LSI and other SAS vendors have already introduced several SAS-to-SAS external RAID subsystems, for instance, as well as SAS switches. Current 3Gb/s SAS also created the market for 2.5-inch small form factor (SFF) enterprise drives. The trend toward 2.5-inch drives is expected to continue with 6Gb/s SAS. As well as the obvious sizing gains, this provides the advantage of lower power consumption and less heat generation.

“Further enhancements in 6Gb/s SAS will make it even more attractive as a host interface for external storage moving forward,” said So. “This includes a standardized zoning scheme, and the removal of limitations in SAS configurations.”

What’s New?

6Gb/s SAS is the marketing term the SCSI Trade Association (STA) gave to the industry standard based on the SAS-2 specification. This next-generation SAS protocol defines a short list of features that include 6Gb/s data transfer rates and self-configuring expanders. This feature allows the expanders to discover topology changes rather than having to rely on the host controllers, which leads to an increase in device scalability, as well as gains in system performance — as the expanders can perform discovery in parallel.

Other upgrades in the standard include new zoning arrangements to ensure interoperability between vendors, a means of increasing cable length from 6-8 meters up to around 10 meters, and the necessary signal and data integrity features to perform in high-end network applications.

“Zoning may be used to hide disks or volumes from servers or computers that are not deliberately given access,” said James Rankin, a technology specialist at CDW Corp. “This is a security feature, and is similar to the LUNmasking concept in Fibre Channel.”

Another useful feature is multiplexing. This offers the ability to combine 3Gp/s SAS links with a 6Gb/s SAS link — it lets you attach an existing 3Gp/s storage system into a larger 6Gp/s backbone.

6Gb/s SAS, then, will replace parallel SCSI is most applications. While that aging standard has been a workhorse for some time, it cannot compete with the speed, features and ease of use present in 6Gb/s SAS. Although SAS uses the SCSI command set, it is not bound to the same limitations as parallel SCSI. For example, SAS can support several thousand hosts per channel, where parallel SCSI supports only 32.

“6Gb/s SAS should also be able to quickly replace parallel SCSI as the preferred host attachment protocol for DAS,” said Rankin. “With the speed, price and feature set offered by 6Gb/s SAS, this technology will become an attractive alternative to FC.”

He concedes, however, that Fibre Channel host attachment and disks will remain the preferred choices for Tier 1 storage. But he views SAS disks and SAS host attachment as the major contenders for Tier 2 storage needs.

So adds that the external storage market is also adopting 3Gb/s SAS, especially as the drive (or back-end) interface. This applies both to JBODs and external RAID subsystems. This is due in large part to its ability to support both SAS and SATA disk drives.

“3Gb/s SAS is just now beginning to penetrate the host (or front-end) interface of external RAID subsystems in the lower price bands,” said So. “I fully expect SAS to continue to grow as both the host and drive interfaces of external storage.”

Fabian takes a bolder stance. He predicted that while Fibre Channel will continue to exist, SAS will easily surpass its usage in data centers. With SCSI going away and being replaced by SAS, the latter will become the dominant interface, he said.

Page 2: Long Wait

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Long Wait

Unfortunately, this storage evolution isn’t coming next week, next month, or maybe not even next year.

6Gb/s SAS components have been broadly announced by a number of storage vendors. LSI is developing 6Gb/s controllers/Raid-on-Chip, expanders, host bus adapters (HBA), MegaRAID adapters and external storage systems. But don’t expect anything to be released until mid-2009. The industry’s first 6Gb/s SAS plugfest, meanwhile, isn’t planned until the fourth quarter. That’s where the first batch of multi-vendor interoperability testing will be done.

“End-user products/solutions typically are not available until 12 to 18 months after the first plugfest,” said So. “Therefore, expect 6Gb/s SAS-based server and external storage solutions in late 2009 or early 2010.”

You’ll see additional activity and announcements from vendors throughout this year and into next. Certified systems will begin to appear perhaps by mid-2009. Further, watch out for tons of 6G/sec capable announcements. For example, Seagate has already announced that its Savvio 10K 300GB product will be 6G/sec capable. The company sees this as a possible combo for tiered storage environments of the near future.

“Previously, 1TB drives were only available in the SATA interface, but for the operations who are looking to simplify their infrastructure by settling on a unified interface approach, SAS is the answer,” said Fabian. “You can now settle on high-performance tier-one storage with the Seagate Savvio small form factor drive, and include the 1TB Barracuda ES drive, also in SAS.”

It should be noted, however, that for 6Gb/s SAS to be viable, the entire infrastructure must be in place. It’s all very well to have super-fast drives, but if the supporting components aren’t up to speed, you won’t gain the full value. But that infrastructure will be put in place rapidly over the next couple of years.

Ultimately, parallel technology is definitely on its way out. Just as floppy disks and video tapes are gone, gone, gone from the shelves, it will soon be the same way with parallel SCSI drives.

“Starting in the first half of next year, you will see drive manufacturers discontinuing the production of the older parallel SCSI drives,” said Fabian. “This is the same thing that happened on desktop with the move to Serial ATA over Parallel ATA.”

And what about a response from the FC community — will we see an 8Gig FC disk drive? Greg Schulz, senior analyst and founder of StorageIO Group, said maybe.

“However, it’s safer to assume that there is a lot of headroom on 6G SAS and in particular 2.5-inch SFF SAS drives,” said Schulz. “Over time, we will see some of the 4 Gig FC drive market share transitioning over to 6G SAS.”

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.

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