Cisco eyes bigger role in storage

Cisco Systems Inc. is expected to charge the storage market as soon as next month with the introduction of a storage switch that supports Fibre Channel, SCSI and Gigabit Ethernet.

The switch will have eight Fibre Channel and two Gigabit Ethernet ports, letting it route SCSI data over IP and simplify storage-area network (SAN) configuration by replacing existing Fibre Channel switches. Sources expect the switch to have many of the same management features as Cisco’s SN 5420 router.

Opinions differ as to how much of an impact Cisco can make on a storage market in which it has not been much of a factor. But there is no doubt the network giant has muscled into the storage world over the past year with a number of significant initiatives, including:

— Investments in storage start-ups such as Andiamo Networks, which is making a multiprotocol storage switch, and StoreAge Networking Technologies Ltd., a storage-virtualization vendor.

— Formation of an internal Storage Technology Group that is on equal footing with Cisco’s 12 other divisions.

— Introduction of the SN 5420 storage router, which is meant to transport data over IP using the iSCSI protocol.

— Release of the ONS 15540 dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM) optical switch, which is used to bridge geographically separated Fibre Channel SANs.

— A series of agreements with storage vendors such as QLogic Corp. and EMC Corp. to deliver storage over IP and Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP), which is used to bridge SAN islands.

There also has been rampant speculation within the industry that Cisco intends to acquire a Fibre Channel vendor to gain expertise in the technology and collect market share.

Analysts say that while Cisco could be perceived as a threat to other storage vendors, the company still has a lot to learn about how storage works.

“To date the company is still trying to learn to speak the storage lingo and learn what is important to customers and what isn’t,” says Steve Duplessie, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group Inc.. “But, in spite of that, Cisco is clearly not someone you can take lightly.”

Cisco officials insist they are up to the task.

“[Cisco’s lack of storage experience] is a criticism we’ve heard before when we entered two other well-established markets: the SNA market . . . and the voice market through voice-over-IP technologies,” says Soni Jiandani, a Cisco vice-president of marketing. “I’d say we’ve done pretty well in both instances.”

One Cisco user says the company will do well selling storage to its installed base.

“The [FCIP] box may come in handy for disaster-recovery scenarios,” says Scott Vieth, systems administrator for the Medical College of Wisconsin in Madison. “Since we’re a Cisco shop, we’d be inclined to look at that device over similar devices from other vendors.”

Others are a bit more cautious about Cisco’s foray.

“Even though we’d lean to other providers for storage, it is an interesting offering in a space that is new to Cisco,” says Chip DiComo, manager of global information systems for Hellman Worldwide Logistics Inc., a transportation company in Miami.

DiComo has Cisco routers but says his router specialists don’t manage storage, therefore they don’t need storage devices that are managed in the same fashion and have the same features as their storage routers. Recently, Cisco added features such as the Cisco Discovery Protocol (CDP), CiscoWorks and Simple Network Management Protocol to its SN 5420 Storage Router.

Cisco is interested in IP and Fibre Channel SANs because of the vast market opportunities they present. Fibre Channel SANs – sales of which IDC analysts say will grow to more than US$4.2 billion by next year from $423 million in 2000 – have been the traditional way of transporting storage data. They also are expensive, require skilled workers to implement and lack interoperability.

IP storage (iSCSI) has been proposed as a familiar and inexpensive way to transport data over the IP network. FCIP, a draft specification within the Internet Engineering Task Force, will be used to bridge isolated Fibre Channel SANs for replication and business continuity purposes.

Cisco plans to introduce more products that use iSCSI and FCIP. Cisco recently ditched a long-standing deal with Brocade Communications Systems Inc., the largest storage switch maker, to make FCIP gear of its own.

Cisco and Brocade allied in April 2001 to make an FCIP blade for Cisco’s Catalyst 6500 and 7600 series switches that would connect any storage vendor’s switch and bridge SANs across IP. The deal, which was expected to produce a product by year-end 2001, soured when Brocade delivered a design that connected only the company’s SilkWorm Fibre Channel switches to the Catalyst, sources say.

While both companies declined to discuss the reasons for the alliance’s failure, they indicated that they will develop their own FCIP blades.

Last week Cisco also announced that it has joined with QLogic to share technology. Sources close to the companies say that the SN 5428 switch will contain QLogic Fibre Channel chips.

The company also will introduce an FCIP module that will join SAN islands as soon as this summer. This module will operate at as much as 350M bit/sec aggregated over four ports, and like many of Cisco’s IP products, it will have virtual LAN, Open Shortest Path First Routing and SNMP, and support distances of up to about 3,100 mile between devices.

The company also says it will add the Layer 2-7 services to the SN 5420 and future products such as the FCIP blade and the SN 5428. These services include virtual LAN, virtualization and remote copy support.

Customers say this is a boon.

“Any new storage routers would have to be managed and monitored with the current tools we use to monitor our current Cisco network,” Medical College’s Vieth says. “We don’t have time to learn another piece of management software that would be used exclusively for storage routers.”

Cisco has as many as 100 employees dedicated to storage. It also has invested $42 million in storage start-up Andiamo. Andiamo is making a large multiprotocol switch that will compete with Brocade’s Silkworm 12000 and have iSCSI, Fibre Channel and DWDM modules. Brocade has promised iSCSI, FCIP and InfiniBand, but so far has only delivered 128 Fibre Channel ports.

However, tension is palpable between Cisco’s Storage Business Unit and Andiamo, sources say, leading them to question which division of Cisco ultimately will deliver port-dense storage products. Observers say that if Andiamo’s products are successful, Cisco will invest as much as $142 million more. Cisco also has agreed to acquire the company for as much as $2.5 billion.

Last year, the company invested in a 10 per cent share of StoreAge Networking Technologies, a start-up that is virtualizing data by forming it into common pools that can be accessed and managed from a common interface. Cisco has indicated its storage products will be the platform for services such as virtualization and virtual SANs.

The company also announced plans to enter the storage service provider market, providing gear to implement large dispersed data centers. Cisco currently has the ONS 15540 DWDM switch, which accomplishes long-range transport of data over IP. Coupled with the SN 5420, or the new switch and existing Catalyst 6500 switches, Cisco is working toward that goal.

Despite the activity, some experts remain skeptical about Cisco’s chances in the storage market.

“I really need to see Cisco have some success with storage,” says Tony Prigmore, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group. “I understand why you have to give them respect because of who they are, but they have to earn a lot more respect with volume and meaningful customer relations before they can be considered a storage player.”