Cisco targets low-end SAN customers

Cisco Systems is rolling out a low-end Fibre Channel switch that supports some features of its larger director-level switches, such as virtual storage area network capability, and makes them affordable to the midmarket.

The MDS 9124 Multilayer Fabric Switch is an expandable 24-port 4Gbps Fibre Channel switch that can be configured in eight-port increments. It includes an easy-to-use configuration wizard to simplify installation and SAN setup for businesses with limited IT SAN skills, the company says. Like Cisco’s other MDS 9000 Series Multilayer Director switches, the 9124 uses Cisco’s SAN-OS operating system, which provides for high performance and resilient connections between switches.

The switch supports PortChannel aggregation software for link redundancy and load balancing, and has support for virtual SANs so customers can partition storage resources more easily.

The MDS 9124 is 1U high and can be expanded on-demand by activating port licences. It features redundant and hot-swappable fans and power supplies for resiliency. The switch can be managed over an in-band IP over Fibre Channel connection or out of band using Ethernet.

The 9124 fits into the low end of Cisco’s MDS 9000 family of Fibre Channel switches and directors, which range from the fixed-port MDS 9020 with 20 ports to the MDS 9513 Multilayer Director with 528 ports.

The MDS 9124 competes with McData’s Sphereon 4400 and 4700 Fabric switches and Brocade’s Silkworm 4100 switches, all expandable-port Fibre Channel switches. Unlike these switches, the MDS 9124 includes management, performance and other software for tuning the switch.

McData’s Sphereon switches, in contrast, include only Enterprise Fabric Connectivity Manager Basic software for configuring the switch. For the same functionality in a Brocade switch, a customer would need to add an optional Fabric Watch license, Advance Performance Monitoring software, an Extended Fabrics and Inter-Switch Link Trunking License and an E-Port license.

Analysts say this bundling of software with its switches is an important differentiator.

“You need to look beyond the number of ports and physical similarities and look at the functionality you get for a given price,” said Greg Schulz, senior analyst for Storage I/O. “For instance, with the Cisco MDS 9124, you get a fabric manager, fault management and [virtual] SAN capability in the price of switch. You are getting the same functionality you have with other Cisco products even though you’ve scaled down.”

Brian Sharwood, a principal with analyst firm SeaBoard Group in Toronto, said the traditionally large upfront costs in rolling out a SAN have been a barrier to entry for small and medium sized businesses that need more flexibility in their technology infrastructure.

“Flexibility is a key thing for small businesses,” said Sharwood. “Cisco has addressed this with a pay-as-you-go (model).”

Sharwood said it’s a model that a lot of vendors, such as Lucent and Juniper have been moving toward; they sell the customer a box with a lot of the features disabled, enabling them only as the business grows and the customer requires them.

“You buy the hardware and then you ask for the ports to get turned on, and you pay (for the new functionality),” said Sharwood. “They’re bringing it down market, and it addresses the Canadian midsized market well.”

The MDS 9124 switch will be available through Dell, Hitachi Data Systems, HP, IBM, Network Appliance, Sun and Xiotech. The company is also expected to announce that it will make embedded Fibre Channel blade switches for blade server manufacturers IBM and HP.

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