Fill Words. What are those, what do they do and why are they needed

There has been quite some confusion around the use of fill words with the adoption of the 8G fibre-channel standard. Some admins have reported that they have problems connecting devices on this speed as well as numerous headaches in long-distance replication especially when DWDM/CWDM equipment is involved.

An ordered set is a transmission word used to perform control and signaling functions. There are 3 types of ordered sets defined:

1. Frame delimiters. These identify the start and end of frames.
2. Primitive signals. These are normally used to indicate events or actions (like IDLE)
3. Primitive Sequences which are used to indicate state or condition changes and are normally transmitted continuously until something causes the current state to chance. Examples are NOS,OLS,LR,LRR

So what is a fill-word? A fill-word is a primitive signal which is needed to maintain bit and word synchronization between two adjacent ports. Is doesn’t matter what port type (F-port,E-port,N-Port etc) it is. They are not data frames in the sense that they transport user-data but instead they communicate status messages between these two ports. If no user-data is transmitted the ports will send so called IDLE frames. These are just frames with some bit pattern where the ports are able to keep there synchronization on a bit-level as well as a word level. The IDLE primitive is a 10-bit transmission character on the wire, as any ordered set starts with K28.5 which is a fibre-channel notation for 8B10B encoding and three data words of which the last 20 bits are 1010101010….etc. Depending on the content of these transmission characters it’s either a fill-word or non-fillword.

Examples of fillwords are IDLE, ARB(F0), ARB(FF) and non-fillword are R_RDY, VC_RDY etc.

So what happened recently with the introduction of the 8G standard.

In the 1,2 and 4G standard the IDLE primitive signal was used to keep bit and word synchronization. This bitpattern was OK on those speeds however it has been observed that when increasing the clock speed this pattern caused high emissions which in turn could cause problems on adjacent ports and links. In order to reduce that the standard now requires links that are using 8G speed to use the ARB(ff) fill-word. This is a different bit-pattern which doesn’t have this high emission characteristic.

You might wonder what does this have to do with my connection problem? If links negotiate on 8G speed they both have to use the ARB(FF) fill-word. If that doesn’t happen for some reason then the ports cannot maintain word synchronisation and therefore cannot change the port into the active state. This causes both ports to be in some sort of deadlock situation and although you may see that there is a green status light on your HBA and switch port it still is not able to transfer data.

The standard defines that ports who connect on 8G speed first have to initialize with IDLE fill-words and as soon as the port changes to the active state it should change the fill-word to ARB(FF).

It becomes even more complicated with DWDM and CWDM equipment particularly when multiplexers are used. These TDM devices normally crack open the fibre-channel link on a frame boundary level and then are able to multiplex this on a higher clock-rate so they are able to send data from multiple links into one wavelength. If however these TDM devices cannot open the fibre-channel link because they only look for IDLE fillwords then the end-to-end link will fail.

Verify with you manufacturer if you use TDM devices and if so do they support ARB(FF) fillwords. If not than you may have to force the linkspeed to a lower level like 4G.

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