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Cisco VP: Most customers deploy 16 Gbps FC switches with new enterprise flash storage

Brocade executives have talked a lot about flash as a disruptive technology that’s driving 16 Gbps Fibre Channel (FC) storage networking. As the year draws to a close, rival Cisco said most customers now buy 16 Gbps FC switches when they deploy new enterprise-class flash storage.

Rhajeev Bhardwaj, vice president of product management for data center switching and storage products at Cisco, said flash works fine in existing FC environments because the technology was designed for high performance and low latency. But, he recommended a minimum of 8 Gbps FC and strong consideration of 16 Gbps FC for flash-based storage because it provides the most flexibility and “investment protection.”

“If customers are investing for the future, start with 16 Gig,” he said. “If the servers are 8 Gig, 8 Gig is still going to work with 16 Gig switches. Then you don’t have to change your infrastructure.”

Bhardwaj said some customers deploy flash with iSCSI storage and Ethernet-based Nexus switches, but they tend to be mid-market companies. He said most enterprise customers of high-end, flash storage go with Fibre Channel.

“Fibre Channel is proven. It’s robust. It’s mature,” Bhardwaj said.

Cisco’s support for 16 Gbps FC lagged Brocade’s rollout by nearly a year, although Bhardwaj claimed the company’s 16 Gbps FC technology “leapfrogged” the competition with higher director-class performance, true high availability, and the ability to upgrade modular systems with new line cards rather than a disruptive chassis replacement.

Meanwhile, Brocade has promoted of its flash efforts. The company rolled out a Solid State Ready program for flash and hybrid array vendors to test their systems with the company’s Fibre Channel and Ethernet switches. Jack Rondoni, vice president of storage networking at Brocade, claimed SSDs are causing people to think differently about their storage architectures.

Brocade has already indicated plans to have 32 Gbps FC products, also known as Gen 6 FC, by the end of next year. Cisco’s 32 Gbps FC technology won’t begin to emerge until the 2016 timeframe, according to Bhardwaj.

Bhardwaj said he thinks demand for 32 Gbps FC will depend on application workloads. Customers tend to deploy the higher bandwidth gear once the new technology is roughly similar in price to the older generation, he added.

“There are three legs in this race. There’s what goes on the server, the host bus adapter. There’s the switching infrastructure and then, of course, the storage arrays. Usually what happens is the switch shows up first, with the host bus adapters kind of the same time. But, the storage arrays are farther behind,” said Bhardwaj. “From a customer perspective, they have to live with this mismatch in speeds. Everything is not ready. So, I think this is a journey that takes time.”

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