What Is a Fibre Channel Switch?

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A Fibre Channel switch is a network switch compatible with the Fibre Channel protocol. Used in a dedicated high-speed storage area network (SAN), it acts like other network switches by connecting servers and storage devices and forwarding data packets between them. Fibre Channel (FC) switches have a specific use because of their high performance, low latency, high availability, and lossless data transmission. This article covers how Fibre Channel switches work, the benefits and challenges of using them, and the best use cases for them.

How Does a Fibre Channel Switch Work?

Fibre Channel switches reduce complexity in a SAN environment by eliminating the need for every server to be directly connected to every storage device. When a host computer, or server, requests access to a storage device, the FC switch detects the request, analyzes it, and routes it to the correct device.

Why are Fibre Channel Switches Important?

Because Fibre Channel switches eliminate the need for every server to connect directly to a SAN device, they simplify the network topology, making it easier and less expensive to administer. Using a FC network also significantly improves transmission speeds—a FC network provides high performance, high availability, low latency, lossless data transmission.

Consequently, FC networks are highly reliable and well-suited to organizations running data centers with mission-critical applications that must operate at the “five nines” level. Five nines refers to the idea that an application will be available 99.999 percent of the time—less than six minutes of downtime per year.

Fibre Channel Switch Use Cases

Fibre Channel switches and the FC high-speed data transfer protocol are preferred for commercial data centers due to their speed, reliable performance, low latency, and lossless data transmission. The technology is specifically designed to connect servers to shared storage devices and interconnect storage controllers and drives.

Business analytics, data mining, and critical enterprise workloads operate at their performance capability in a FC environment. In addition to the lossless packet delivery, FC switches feature congestion control and prioritization that keeps the network optimally performing, making them valuable for the following applications:

  • Large databases and data warehouses
  • Storage backup systems and recovery
  • Server clusters
  • Campus backbones
  • High-performance storage

Advantages of a Fibre Channel Switch

FC switches offer high performance and low latency when used in a storage area network. They have high bandwidth and support speeds up to 64 GBs, and because they rely on optical cables for connections, they’re immune to electromagnetic interference. Fibre Channel switches are more reliable than  Ethernet-based storage solutions, and FC networks are less complex because each server does not need a dedicated connection to every storage array.

Challenges of Fibre Channel Switches

Fibre Channel switches are more expensive than Ethernet switches, and specialized hardware is required to get the full benefits of lossless networking. The FC protocol is also more complex than other storage network protocols, including small computer systems interface (SCSI). FC switch configuration is complicated, and an improperly configured switch negatively affects the network’s performance—latency bottlenecks can also occur.

Bottom Line: Fibre Channel Switches

Fibre Channel switches bring increased performance, better reliability, and reduced complexity to storage area networks. Enterprises running data centers with SANs or other mission-critical storage applications will benefit from the high-availability of FC networks, which are also simpler and more affordable to administer than other SANs.

Read NVMe over Fibre Channel to learn more about how the FC protocol can benefit enterprises in their storage environments.

Don Hall
Don Hall
Don Hall is a contributing writer to Enterprise Storage Forum, where he covers data storage technology, storage hardware and software, and data networking. He worked for more than two decades as an IT Supervisor for the federal government and as IT Operations Supervisor for an IT Military Command managing programmers, cybersecurity staff, and infrastructure and networking personnel. Previously he worked as an application programmer. Don earned a B.S. in Business Information Systems from San Diego State University and has certificates in Technical Communication and web development with an emphasis in Java/Open Source. He has also had an active CompTIA Security + (ce) since 2011, and a Network +(ce) since 2015.

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