Fibre Channel for Linux

by Erling Nygaard

In the network world, the picture is quite different. Here the environment is unstructured, open and behaves much more unpredictably. All devices can talk to any other device at any time. One consequence of this is that more control is needed to correctly handle connections, access permissions, route information and other aspects of correct behavior. The result is that channels are often characterized by high throughput and low overhead, while networks tend to have low throughput and high overhead. However, networks are much more flexible, more scalable and run for longer distances than channels. Fibre Channel (FC) attempts to combine the best of these two worlds. The work on the Fibre Channel standard started in 1988 as an extension of work on the Intelligent Peripheral Interface--Level 3 (IPI-3). Fibre Channel is today an open standard as defined by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and OSI (Open Systems Interconnect).

Some of the goals of the Fibre Channels standard are to provide support for existing protocols, flexible topologies, high bandwidth and long distances.

One of the features of Fibre Channel is the use of existing, well-established protocols for data transmission. These are called upper layer protocols in Fibre Channel. FC does not impose any new format for data, hence all existing applications can continue to use standard protocols. Fibre Channel just becomes the transport layer for these protocols. Hence, there is no need to rewrite any applications in order to take advantage of Fibre Channel. Both SCSI and IP are among the protocols Fibre Channel supports. Of course, vendors can choose what protocols to actually implement in a product; usually only a few upper layer protocols are implemented in a product.

Fibre Channel offers three different topologies that can be combined to fit any needed configuration. The simplest topology is a point-to-point connection between two nodes. A node in FC is any device attached to a FC network; both computers and storage devices are nodes. A more advanced topology is available by using an Arbitrated Loop. This configuration allows up to 126 devices to share one loop. Finally, Fibre Channel switches are available that can form fabrics with thousands of nodes. In addition, Fibre Channel is hot-swappable, meaning new nodes can be added to or removed from a topology without powering all other nodes down.

Concerning bandwidth, the Fibre Channel equipment currently available supports 1 Gbps (100 MBps data transfer). Two Gbps equipment is under development, and announcements have been made that some equipment will be available in 2001.

With the right equipment, a single Fibre Channel link can run up to 10 km without the need for repeaters. Single-mode optical fibre and 1,300 nm lasers are needed for this. With multi-mode fibre, distances up to 500 meters are supported, and electrical cabling is available up to 13 meters. It is important to make sure that all cables meet the specifications for FC-cables.

Fibre Channel Topologies

Four topologies are available in Fibre Channel: Point-to-Point, Fabrics, Arbitrated Loops and Fabrics with Arbitrated Loops.

Point-to-point represents the simplest Fibre Channel topology. It provides a dedicated 100MB connection between two nodes, be it two host machines, one host machine and one storage device, or one host and a switch. This kind of topology may be useful for connecting two machines that are physically separated by some distance and are in need of a dedicated high-bandwidth connection.

The topology created by using one or more switches is called a fabric. Switches were listed together with Point-To-Point part of the original FC specifications. The switch would provide point-to-point connections between itself and the connected nodes, thus allowing communication between all the nodes. Large topologies can then be created.

Arbitrated Loops were actually added on to the original FC-specifications. A topology that would combine some of the features of Point-To-Point with some of the features from Fabrics was needed. One of the main arguments against pure fabric is the price per fabric-port, which gets very high when each fabric-port is connected to just one node. Although this offers each device full connection to the fabric, most nodes do not constantly need the full bandwidth of Fibre Channel. The Arbitrated Loop offers (as the name suggests) a shared loop topology. The loop can contain up to 126 nodes and one fabric-port with all the nodes arbitrating for usage of the loop.

A FC loop physically connects the outgoing connectors to the incoming connector of the next node. At any given time, only one port can be sending frames. Before a port can transmit any data, it has to win an arbitration for the loop. Since several or all of the nodes might be arbitrating for usage of the loop at the same time, performance will degenerate as more nodes are added. A loop with 127 active ports is likely to not operate with the performance one would like.

By combining the Fabric and the Arbitrated Loop, very large and flexible networks can be created. A port on the switch can be connected to an Arbitrated Loop. Every device on this loop now has access to the other devices on the loop as well as every device that is connected to the switch. A loop connected to a fabric is known as a Public Loop.

Why use Fibre Channel under Linux?

Obviously, Fibre Channel offers features that other standards do not. Unfortunately, Fibre Channel equipment is still somewhat expensive, so one has to look at the advantages before justifying an investment in Fibre Channel equipment.

Since Fibre Channel supports IP, it can be used to replace a LAN. However, given the current price of Fibre Channel, this is not a likely use. FC is more likely to be used as a SCSI network.

The simplest use of Fibre Channel is to replace external SCSI-attached storage units on a single server. This involves one HBA, some FC-storage units and perhaps an FC hub for making the cabling simpler. There are several advantages for using FC here. Having several external SCSI units often leads to cable mess. SCSI cables have limits for how long they can run are usually thick and impractical, and your equipment will most likely require different connectors and cables.

SCSI often involves messing with jumpers or microswitches to set IDs and getting the termination right is often a problem. With Fibre Channel, many of these problems are avoided. First of all, since FC uses serial instead of parallel cables, the cables can run longer and are easier to manage than standard SCSI cables. You can also use a hub to make cabling management even easier. Almost all Fibre Channel storage units use a standardized DB-9 style connector, and you just have to put a standard terminator on the last storage unit. There is no need to set any unit IDs, the Fibre Channel devices will negotiate this during the initialization phase.

The main advantage of Fibre Channel is to have several computers share the same storage device. This is to a certain degree possible with a regular SCSI bus is but not done too often. Trying to connect more than two computers may not be easy, involving problems like setting host-IDs and termination problems when a computer is powered on or off. Using Fibre Channel to connect several computers to the same storage devices is trivial. However, this raises some new and challenging questions. If the shared devices contain shared files, system problems may occur. Although Fibre Channel allows several computers to share devices and file systems, it offers no way to prevent these computers from stepping on each other toes. If computers are allowed to access shared file systems for reads and writes, there will be chaos as both data and meta-data are manipulated independently by several computers. There are some basic ways to get around this:

<il>Share the device but not the file systems on the device. Each computer has its own partition and file system on the shared device. There is no file system sharing between computers.

<il>Have all computers mount the storage device read-only. Even having one writer will not work with any of the standard file systems. The read-only machines will assume the data remains unchanged and will not check for changes in the file system in a consistent way. Any new data may not be detected unless you reboot the machines. An umount-mount may not be enough, since data might still be cached on both the writing machine (the data has not been written to disk) and the reading machine(s) (data from the file system is still in memory).

<il>Use a shared filesystem. Such filesystems are designed to allow several computers access to shared devices and include methods for keeping the filesystem correct. One such filesystem is the Global File System, at

Being able to share storage devices among computers opens up many new possibilities. For environments like web-servers you can have several servers pushing out the data but get away with maintaining one copy of the actual data. Environments that deal with huge data-sets that need to be manipulated by several processes also gain from shared storage. One example would be digital moviehouses, where several artists may work with the data. Instead of moving the data from computer to computer, shared storage provides a better solution.

But Fibre Channel can be useful even if you do not want shared storage. An FC network can be configured so that only a given computer can access a given set of storage devices. However, all the storage devices can now be in a central location. This makes maintenance and backup much easier.

HBAs Supported Under Linux

Currently, several FC HBAs have support under Linux.

1. EmulexEmulex has several Fibre Channel cards. Currently, the LightPulse family is supported under Linux. This includes the LightPulse 7000, LightPulse 8000, LightPulse 850, LightPulse 9000 and LightPulse 950.

Emulex have released a driver for their Fibre Channel cards. This driver is available at the Emulex FTP server:

This release includes drivers for both IP and SCSI. In addition, there is a diagnostic utility included. There are also several documents explaining in great detail how to get the driver installed. This release only supports x386 platform machines.

After downloading the tarfile (and the MS-Word file) and extracting the files, you will have several directories. Printing out and reading the documentation is strongly recommended. This gives good, detailed information about how to get the drivers configured and operational. There is a section for how to set up the configuration file needed for both the IP driver and the SCSI common driver. Note that some of the common code is in the SCSI driver, so in order to use the IP driver, the SCSI common driver needs to be loaded.

There are also detailed instructions for how to set up a Fibre Channel disk to be used as a bootdisk. However, since there is no means to map a disk to a specific sd device, this probably should not be done in a large FC environment where the number of disks currently available may change.

2. QlogicQlogic has produced two Fibre Channel cards that have Linux drivers, the Qlogic 2100 and the Qlogic 2200. Both cards support SCSI and the 2200 has support for IP, although there is currently no Linux driver that supports IP. Both cards support Arbitrated Loop topologies and the 2200 card also supports fabric topologies. With some FC switches, the 2100 card can also be configured for fabric configuration.

There are three different drivers available for the Qlogic cards:

<il>University of New Hampshire released the first Linux driver for the Qlogic card. This driver now comes with the standard kernels and can be configured using standard kernel configuration tools. The latest version and related information is available at This driver has been tested and found to work on both Intel and Alpha-boxes.

<il>Qlogic released their own driver. It's available at the Qlogic home page, at, under "Driver Download". This driver is for Intel machines only.

<il>Feral Software released is a cross-platform BSD/Linux driver. This driver works on both Intel and Alpha platforms.

3. InterphaseInterface offers support for the 5526 card. This card is build around the HP Tachyon Fibre Channel Protocol engine and supports both SCSI and IP. It also support all the Fibre Channel topologies, Point-to-Point, Arbitrated Loops and Fabrics.

One driver for this card is available with the standard Linux kernel, and it supports both IP and SCSI. Since the driver is part of the standard kernel, it may easily be used by including it when compiling the kernel. The latest version of this driver can also be found at the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Labs home page, In addition, Interphase has written their own Linux driver for this card. This driver is available both as binary and as source code at

4. JNIThe FCE 6410 and 3210 are FC HBAs produced by JNI. The FCE 6410 is a 64-bit PCI 33MHz card; the FCE 3210 is a 32-bit PCI 33MHz card. Both cards support Point-to-Point, Arbitrated Loop and Fabric topologies. JNI has written its own driver for this card. Unfortunately, this driver is only available in binary format for Red Hat kernel releases. Binaries for the 2.2.12 and the 2.2.5 kernels are available on the JNI web page,

Issues with Fibre Channel

Unfortunately, Fibre Channel is not yet 100% stable under Linux. Although drivers have greatly improved, stability issues still exist. There are also issues related to the SCSI layers in Linux. One problem relates to connecting new computers to a FC network where I/O is taking place. When a new computer connects to the FC network, the computers that are already connected and doing I/O are likely to experience SCSI problems. Some of the drivers will recover from this, other will potentially bring the SCSI layers into a downward spiral.

Some of these problems are related to how the drivers and SCSI layers handle devices that are temporarily not available. Devices can become temporarily not available when new nodes are brought online. This can trigger error handling and may abort a device's ongoing I/O. How to correctly handle a device that becomes unavailable might be tricky, since one does not know if the device will come back soon or if it is permanently gone.

Another interesting issue is the naming space for storage devices. As on a regular SCSI bus, devices are given names like /dev/sda and /dev/sdb, depending on the order in which the devices are found. On a single SCSI bus this does not create any problems since the configuration of the bus does not change often. On a Fibre Channel network this is not so. Given the potential size of a FC network, both the number and discovery order of devices is likely to change. This means that the device previously known as /dev/sdw might be dev/sdbc the next time you reboot the machine or install the FC driver. This, of course, quickly leads to confusion and chaos.

One solution for this issue is to use some sort of logical volume manager (LVM). These usually write an identification label on each of the storage devices; hence, the SCSI identification becomes irrelevant. If the storage devices are to be shared between computers, one has to make sure that the LVM can actually handle this. One simple LVM that allows multiple machines is the pool driver used by the Global File System.

Another solution to the identification problem is to use the world wide number (wwn) that each Fibre Channel device has. This is a 64-bit number assigned by the manufacturer, used to identify the device uniquely. Some FC-drives let you specify, either on the command line or in a configuration file, a mapping between the wwn and the /dev/sd entries.

Another issue is the hot addition and removal of storage devices. Fibre Channel devices are designed for being connected and disconnected without powering down. However, getting this to work involves much more than just making electrical connectors that can handle this swapping. Fibre Channel defines mechanisms for letting attached devices know of the presence of a new device. For an Arbitrated Loop this involves a procedure that may remind some a bit of a SCSI bus reset. In the case of a switched topology, a computer can tell the switch to be informed whenever a new device is attached somewhere in the topology. The problem lies in reliably informing the kernel about the fact that a new device is available or that a device that used to be available no longer is.

Despite these problems, FC is quickly becoming more stable under Linux. And with all the advantages FC offers, anyone who deals with storage under Linux should at least seriously consider Fibre Channel.


<il>Fibre Channel Industry Association,<il>ANSI T11 Standards Committee,<il>Storage Networking Industry Association,<il>Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop Community,<il>Fibre Channel Consortium, University of New Hampshire's Interoperability Lab,<il>The Global File System,<il>University of Minnesota Fibre Channel Group,

In addition, many FC-vendors offer white papers on their home pages, so it is worth doing some surfing.

Erling Nygaard ( moved from Norway to Minnesota five years ago to attend the University of Minnesota. He graduated with a MS in Electrical Engineering and is currently working for Sistina Software Inc. in Minneapolis, MN.

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