Mar 24, 2023
by Timothy Klein, President/CEO, ATTO Technology
In the 35 years since ATTO was founded, we’ve seen lots of different storage connectivity technologies come and go. The quest for greater and greater performance has been the catalyst of countless advancements, however, over the years it has become clear there is a distinct difference between performance and speed.
Without question, speed is an important part of the overall equation but performance means much more than that. Application performance depends on overall throughput (generally regarded as speed), predictable latency, transfer efficiency, and a host of other variables. That’s why at ATTO, although we’ve seen a lot and have a fantastic team of experts, we are always learning something new about storage and network connectivity. Our endless curiosity is what drives our innovation.
Since it all comes down to application performance, one of the questions I’m asked a lot lately is what is the best choice for connectivity in video post-production environments. Post-production environments are becoming increasingly complex and demanding, requiring high-performance storage networking solutions to support the creation of high-quality content. Over the past few years, the choice between Fibre Channel and Ethernet for storage networking has become a topic of debate.
There’s no simple answer since both technologies have their advantages and disadvantages, and each is suited for different types of workflows.
Some may be surprised to learn that Ethernet, although inefficient, has been the dominant technology in storage networking for decades which is largely due to its ubiquity and low cost. Those factors have inspired advancements in its underlying technology and thanks to those, it has recently become the new, cool kid on the block for post-production workflows.
Ethernet-based storage solutions, such as iSCSI, SMB and NFS, can provide high performance and low latency for small to medium-sized post-production environments. These solutions are relatively easy to deploy and manage, as they are built on the same network infrastructure that is already in place for other IT services. Ethernet also supports a wide range of speeds, from 1 GbE to 100 GbE and beyond making it a flexible option for a variety of workloads.
Fibre Channel, on the other hand, has been used in post-production since it first appeared. It’s a dedicated storage networking technology that was designed specifically for high-performance, low-latency storage traffic. It provides higher bandwidth, lower latency, and better reliability compared to Ethernet-based solutions. Fibre Channel supports speeds of up to 64 Gb/s, which provides ample headroom for even the most demanding post-production workflows.
Fibre Channel also supports advanced features such as lossless packet delivery, congestion control, and prioritization, which can help ensure that storage traffic is delivered reliably and consistently. For post-production where predictability is essential Fibre Channel is and always has been hard to beat.
So, how do these technologies stack up when it comes to performance? While Ethernet can provide high performance, it may not be able to deliver with consistency the low latency and high bandwidth required by demanding post-production processes. Ethernet is a shared network, meaning that storage traffic must compete with other network traffic for bandwidth, which can lead to congestion and performance degradation.
Conversely, Fibre Channel provides higher overall performance and reliability, the two attributes of connectivity most important in a post-production infrastructure. While Ethernet is a shared network that competes with other network traffic for bandwidth, Fibre Channel provides dedicated bandwidth for storage traffic. This means that Fibre Channel can provide more consistent and predictable performance for storage traffic, even at lower speeds.
More importantly, Fibre Channel has lower latency than Ethernet because its dedicated, lossless packet delivery guarantees delivery times. Ethernet, on the other hand, uses a best-effort delivery model that can result in dropped packets and variable delivery times. This can lead to increased latency and reduced performance for storage traffic, especially in high-traffic environments, and is the reason why with Ethernet the throughput you actually get is never as high as what’s advertised.
Cost is another thing that our customers and partners ask about quite often. What I usually tell them is that while acquisition costs for Ethernet are generally more affordable than Fibre Channel, this doesn’t mean it’s the better choice. If the results in the studio are disappointing then the initial low price isn’t the bargain it seemed to be. The cost of cables, switches, and network cards can add up quickly making the solutions comparable when pushing for higher performance.
With that said, in many cases an ethernet network can use the same infrastructure already in place for other IT services and may not require dedicated hardware like Fibre Channel would (assuming a Fibre Channel infrastructure isn’t in place). This can make Ethernet an attractive option for small and medium-sized post-production environments with less demanding workflows and that cannot afford to invest in a Fibre Channel infrastructure.
Other things I encourage our customers to think about when deciding on Ethernet or Fibre Channel for storage network connectivity are scalability, management, security and reliability.
Without a doubt, Ethernet can be more cost-effective to scale and manage. Again, it’s built on the same network infrastructure that is likely already in place for other IT services. Solutions such as iSCSI, SMB and NFS, are relatively easy to deploy and manage, making them well-suited for small to medium-sized post-production environments. Keep in mind, though, that easier doesn’t mean easy. Ethernet-based storage solutions can quickly become complicated, particularly as environments grow in size and complexity. Ethernet storage deployments meant for optimal performance involve advanced configuration and tuning which typically requires a level of expertise only possessed by dedicated engineers.
When it comes to security and reliability, Fibre Channel definitely takes the prize. It was designed for storage area networks and has built-in security features such as zoning and authentication to prevent unauthorized data access. It is a dedicated point-to-point connection separate from Ethernet networks, ensuring sensitive data is not exposed. On the other hand, Ethernet relies heavily on software-based security measures which are vulnerable to hacking and attacks.
Again, Fibre Channel supports advanced features such as lossless packet delivery, congestion control, and prioritization, which can help ensure that storage traffic is delivered reliably and consistently. Ethernet lacks some of these advanced features, which can impact the reliability and consistency of storage traffic, especially in high-traffic environments such as post-production workflows.
With all of these considerations, how do we respond when our post-production customers ask what is the right choice? Well, it’s complicated. Both Fibre Channel and Ethernet have their advantages when it comes to storage networking in post-production environments. We always recommend keeping an open mind and choosing the technology that best meets the environment and the workflow. Ultimately, the choice between Fibre Channel and Ethernet depends on the unique needs of each customer, including performance requirements, budget, and available expertise. We see a place for both technologies in the evolving post-production world.
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