Cisco seeks to star in storage nets

Cisco Systems Inc. last week signaled its official arrival in the Fibre Channel storage network market with the acquisition of Andiamo Systems Inc. – a company it incubated – and the introduction of a line of high-performance storage equipment based on Andiamo’s technology.

The new mid- to high-end Fibre Channel gear, called Multilayer DataCenter Switches (MDS), boasts up to twice the capacity of products from market leaders Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and McData Corp.

The company has some lofty storage goals: CEO John Chambers says Cisco is shooting to become No. 1 or 2 in the storage-area networks (SAN), a market The Yankee Group estimates will more than double in size over the next few years to US$2.6 billion. Cisco will attempt to woo customers by promising to deliver the scalability and manageability customers are used to with Cisco’s traditional network wares.

And the MDSs should do just that by supporting multiple storage protocols – including Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over IP (FC/IP) and iSCSI – along with key storage technology such as virtual SANs and storage virtualization. Cisco says all this will be managed through the same central management technology it uses for its data network gear.

“Storage is a very good fit for Cisco because they know how to move packets very well, whether they are IP,Fibre Channel or ATM,” says Tom McCormick, supervisor of network engineering for Carnival Cruises Inc. in Miami.

McCormick says that Cisco’s strength in switching can easily be carried over to storage because a SAN fabric is similar to a LAN fabric. Carnival Cruises has 7 terabytes of data stored on EMC Symmetrix arrays connected to Brocade Fibre Channel switches and Unix servers.

The acquisition of Andiamo, which was located on Cisco’s campus and manned largely by Cisco staff, is not Cisco’s first storage acquisition. Two years ago, the company paid $450 million to acquire NuSpeed, a start-up that made a router that transported Fibre Channel data over Gigabit Ethernet networks.

From the acquisition, Cisco produced two products it continues to sell: the SN 5420, a router with one Fibre Channel and one Ethernet port, and the SN 5428, a switch with two Gigabit ports and eight Fibre Channel ports. The devices are aimed primarily at mixed IP-Fibre Channel environments – the SN 5420 handles iSCSI traffic and the SN 5428 routes FC/IP traffic. The new Fibre Channel switches are meant for larger deployments and are geared toward Fibre Channel connectivity.

Cisco also entered into an agreement with Brocade in June 2000 to manufacture an FC/IP blade that would fit into the Catalyst 6500 switch and bridge SAN traffic over IP (FC/IP) for redundancy and fault tolerance. That deal foundered when Brocade delivered a blade that only worked with Brocade switches and not those from other vendors.

The MDS Fibre Channel switches will have many of the same features as Cisco’s IP routers: they will be managed with SNMP and use Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service authentication, and support the same language and syntax the Cisco Internet Operating System command-line interface uses.

A single management interface “is really appealing,” says Mike Prince, CIO of Burlington Coat Factory Corp. in Burlington, N.J. “The upside of the Cisco approach is we already have the management consoles. We have enough overlap between network and storage managers that [being able to] manage them from the same tool would be important.”

Another key part of this announcement was that Cisco says it is partnering with a variety of storage stalwarts, such as EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Corp., IBM Corp.’s Tivoli Systems Inc. and StorageNetworks Inc., to promote product interoperability and packaging. Users applauded this move.

“When we buy storage, we buy the storage switch that is affiliated with the storage vendor,” says Lloyd Hamm, CIO of Eastern Bank, a regional New England bank in Lynn, Mass. Eastern Bank uses all-Cisco LAN and WAN products, but the company uses storage systems from HP and Brocade storage switches that HP sells on an OEM basis.

“This one-vendor approach to storage and storage switching is important,” Hamm says. “We don’t want to be in a situation where the storage company is blaming the storage switch company if any problems arise. That’s a hard enough problem when dealing with servers and [Ethernet LAN] switches.”

As SAN and IP networks converge with FC/IP and iSCSI, and Fibre Channel devices work together off-the-shelf, users will buy more network and storage equipment together.

“As the market starts to recover in 2003 and there is more emphasis on building out SAN infrastructures and integrating it with the IP network, Cisco will be considered in the lineup very quickly,” says Jamie Gruener, senior analyst with The Yankee Group. “We are talking about Cisco, after all – no one ever got fired for using Cisco.”

The Cisco MDS 9000 family consists of six-, nine- and 13-slot boxes: the Cisco MDS 9506, 9509 and 9513, respectively. The boxes support 16 to 256 ports per switch for a maximum of 768 per rack. All boxes provide Fibre Channel, iSCSI and SAN bridging over IP (FC/IP) capability and typically fit in a SAN between network servers and Fibre Channel arrays. Competing boxes typically support eight to 128 ports of Fibre Channel connectivity, Cisco says.

Cisco rolled out the midrange MDS 9216 Multilayer Fabric Switch, which features one fixed slot containing 16 ports of 1G or 2G bit/sec Fibre Channel and one expansion slot for additional ports. The Cisco MDS 9216 is comparable to Cisco’s Silkworm 3800, McData’s Spherion 3016 Fabric Switch and Inrange’s FC/9000 16 Edge Switch. It typically sits on a SAN between servers on a company’s network and storage arrays.

IDC estimates that Brocade, McData and Inrange accounted for 91% of the market in 2001. Of that share, Brocade dominated the midrange market for switches with 16 to 32 ports; while McData dominated the high end with director-level switches of 64 ports.

“It’s always good when two companies compete head to head in the marketplace,” Prince says. “Brocade and Cisco are great companies. Cisco’s offering in the marketplace will lead to good competition for service and price, and push the market forward for innovation.”

“We are contemplating re-engineering our storage networks,” Prince says. “We’ll be clustering across the sites. We are debating whether to go to a backplane-type product like Cisco announced or to use edge switches like we do with Brocade.”

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