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Tech Roundup: Intelligent switches

Shane O'Neill
An intelligent switch acts as the brains of a SAN, handling storage management functions, monitoring bandwidth for applications and securing access for all data. As SANs continue to grow and merge, it's inevitable that

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the demand for intelligent switches will increase.

In contrast, standard switches simply pass data through to a designated location without manipulating it, and are not designed to handle complex storage, security and performance issues.

Intelligent switches are most suitable for SANs in large businesses that are frequently growing and changing. When implemented, intelligent switches can provide such features as storage virtualization and remote mirroring and can help simplify storage management and strengthen security. However, intelligent switches are still evolving and have yet to be implemented in smaller enterprises.

This tech roundup discusses how intelligent switches are used, their evolution to date and what the competitive landscape looks like.

Definition

According to the SearchStorage.com glossary an intelligent switch is a high-level SAN routing switch that provides features such as storage virtualization, quality of service (QoS), volume management, remote mirroring, data sharing, protocol conversion and advanced security.

These are all functions that have historically resided on hosts or in storage arrays. Brad O'Neill, senior analyst at Taneja Group in Hopkinton, Mass., says that with the advent of intelligent switches, there is a movement to get all this functionality into the switching fabric.

"In theory, if you have a robust switching platform and strong API support, you can move almost any data movement function to the network and derive benefit from it," says O'Neill.

And the result, according to Randy Kerns, senior partner at the Evaluator Group in Greenwood Village, Colo., is lower costs and less administrative work.

"Functions such as data mapping and replication require significant administrative work that is different for each type of storage system," Kerns says. "Putting those functions in the switch can simplify those aspects of storage management."

Key vendors and products

The main vendors pushing intelligent switches are the usual suspects. Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Cisco Systems Inc. and McData Corp all incorporate intelligence into their switches. The same goes for smaller companies such as Maranti Inc., Maxxan Systems Inc. and Troika Networks Inc.

When implementing intelligent switches, users must figure out if they should use existing technologies or deploy new ones. For example, Brocade, Cisco and McData switches integrate security and volume management technologies from EMC Corp. and IBM Corp. But a new switch vendor like Maxxan Systems Inc. ships its own storage and security products.

According to O'Neill, the three major switch vendors (Brocade, Cisco and McData) are staking their futures on increased functionality on the switch. "This will be the year that all their first mature products will come to market," he says.

Kerns agrees that there is a need for more intelligence in the switch, but says that "to date, there is no significant market penetration, so it is too early to say who is doing well."

Trends and innovations

O'Neill predicts that the marketing and positioning of intelligent switches will become more focused in the next year. Right now, he says that curiosity and perceived benefits are high, but deployments of intelligent switches are still just creeping up.

The challenge with intelligent switches, says O'Neill, is that they can do so much that they exceed what today's users really need. So in the meantime, the big switch vendors will develop more appliance-based offerings that allow users to pick certain functions -- such as backup and archive or virtualization -- to move to the network.

"I have not yet met a storage architect that's going to say, 'Let's just move every mission-critical storage function we have to an intelligent switch and give it a whirl,'" says O'Neill. "So most users will pick and choose what they want to migrate to the network."

Vendors are keen to this trend and are adjusting accordingly. O'Neill points to Brocade's recent acquisition of Therion Software Corp., an application resource management supplier, as something that would not have happened in a non-intelligent switch world.

"Look to see all the major vendors try to make it so attractive to move bits and pieces of your intelligence onto their switch platform," O'Neill says. "You won't have any choice but to make the leap."

Related Links:

Tech Report: Intelligent switches

What is an intelligent switch?

Why and how to virtualize inside a switch

Making sense of new intelligent switch products

Checklist: How to buy a switch

Where should storage intelligence reside?

2004 networking products of the year

New EMC software to run on McData switches

Maranti puts more management functions in the switch fabric

Product roundup: Switches

Hot technologies to keep your eye on

Related Topics: SAN switch, VIEW ALL TOPICS

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