Director-class switches have been used to maintain performance in large storage networks for years, but soon they'll act as the hubs that unify data center networks.

Fibre Channel (FC) as a technology has been relatively static over the past 10 years, and FC switch innovation has been incremental -- from bandwidth support and additional features to increased resilience and availability -- culminating in the high-end FC director platform. Aside from a few failed incursions by vendors like QLogic Corp. and others, Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. now almost exclusively own the high-end Fibre Channel switch and director market. With their top-of-the-line platforms (the Brocade DCX Backbone and Cisco's MDS 9500 Multilayer Director Series), they duel for customers who require a combination of high FC performance and high availability. Features and suitability for existing infrastructure have typically been the primary director selection criteria. Enhancements related to Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), as well as the convergence of FC and Ethernet into a unified data center protocol, have added roadmaps and vendor strategies as relevant purchasing considerations. Protecting the new investment and ensuring its future are of paramount importance considering how profoundly storage-area networks (SANs) and data centers will be transformed.

The Brocade DCX Backbone and Cisco MDS 9500 Series have much in common. They're both

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chassis based and can be scaled by adding or changing hot-swappable line cards. With all components redundant and hot-swappable (blades, fans, power supplies), they present no single point of failure. From 1 Gbps/2 Gbps /4 Gbps /8 Gbps Fibre Channel to FICON, FC over Internet Protocol (FCIP) and Internet Protocol over FC (IPFC), and connectivity options for iSCSI (DCX via an iSCSI gateway and the MDS natively), they support all relevant storage networking protocols. With Brocade's Fabric Application Platform option and the Cisco MDS 9000 Storage Services Module (SSM), both vendors can turn their switches into intelligent app platforms for third-party services, such as EMC Corp.'s Invista for fabric-based storage virtualization and EMC RecoverPoint for fabric-based data protection. By way of the Brocade Data Center Fabric Manager (DCFM) and Cisco Data Center Network Manager (DCNM), both provide commensurate management applications to provision and proactively manage devices across multiple fabrics. Both vendors also support N_Port ID Virtualization (NPIV) to simplify connectivity, management and monitoring of proliferating virtual server environments. In addition, Cisco's ability to create completely isolated fabric topologies via its virtual SAN (VSAN) technology has been matched by Brocade's new Virtual Fabrics feature, which enables organizations to create logical groups of separately managed devices, ports and switches within a physical SAN.

"With the support of Virtual Fabrics, Brocade eliminated one of the competitive advantages Cisco had with VSANs," said Bob Passmore, research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. Notwithstanding a long list of commonalities, Brocade and Cisco differ in some key areas and features, as well as in product strategy.

This was first published in June 2009

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