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McData readies 256-port director

McData is set to unveil its 256-port backbone director, the Intrepid i10K, for SAN consolidation and "tiered networking."

McData Corp. has unveiled its long-awaited 256-port director targeted at Global 500 enterprises that want to consolidate multiple storage networks and manage them as a single SAN.

Dubbed the Intrepid i10K Backbone Director, the product is the result of McData's $102 million acquisition of Sanera in October 2003. A McData spokesman said it took the company 18 months to bring the director to market because additional firmware had to be written to support all the company's products.

"This is not a rip-and-replace upgrade: We expect customers to deploy the i10K alongside their existing switches and plug these into it," said Patrick Harr, vice president of director platforms at McData.

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A feature called hard partitioning allows users to plug the SANs together so that they can be managed from the i10K but still remain logically separate from each other. This is to avoid potential corruptions on one SAN from leaking into another. McData ensures this by providing independent code isolation per virtual fabric. Today, the i10K supports up to four hard partitions, and this number is expected to increase with future releases.

McData's hard partitioning is similar to Cisco's VSANs or Virtual SANs capability in its MDS 9509, a 112-port director that has been shipping for a year. The difference is that Cisco performs partitioning in software instead of hardware. "In other words, if there's a failover on one VSAN it could propagate to another," according to Nancy Hurley, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG).

Brocade Communications Systems Inc. refers to partitioning as LSANs, or Logical SANs, and offers the feature in its multi-protocol router while Computer Network Technology (CNT) has a comparable offering in its UltraNet Multi-service Director (UMD).

Tiered SANs

In conjunction with SAN consolidation, McData is also introducing the idea of "tiered SANs," which is similar in concept to tiered storage. Tier-1 is the backbone layer, which is focused on getting data from point A to point B as fast as possible and is used for creating hardware enforced partitions to "firewall" applications. Like Tier-1 storage arrays, it has the most functionality and is the most expensive device. Tier-2 in McData's model is called the distribution layer and provides the main switching function between devices in the SAN. McData's 6000 series aggregates edge traffic at this higher performing distribution layer and then either distributes it across the ports of that director or passes it on to the backbone director. And finally, Tier-3 is the access layer where hosts access the SAN. McData's Spheron line of edge switches provides this access and connect up to the 6000 series.

ESG's Hurley points out that in order to get to this tiered architecture, users will need to deploy the i10K, but this high-performing product dwarfs the needs of most enterprises. For example, the ability to dynamically assign and redistribute ports on an as-needed basis is great for users getting into utility-computing, but how many are they? "The concept is good, but it's questionable how many people will take advantage of it," she said.

Bob Venable, manager of enterprise systems at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said that while they're a McData shop, they aren't sold on the idea of tiered SANs. "It makes no sense … If you can do everything with one box, why would you want to try and do it with two," he said. According to Venable, the best thing about the i10K is the investment protection it affords, which he said is lost in McData's tiered SAN vision. He is referring to the Director Services Modules coming at the end of the year, which will also work with the 6000 series. These will be plug-ins for virtualization, SAN routing, Gigabit Ethernet and iSCSI support.

Competitors respond

The only other company with a 256-port director on the market is CNT with its UMD product. It claims to have shipped around 200 UMDs with half of them installed in production environments. "We'd say to McData: Welcome to the party with 'me too' features," said Doug Ingraham, senior director of SAN switching at CNT. He called McData's tiered SAN vision "marketecture" to keep competitors out. "The i10K is a forklift upgrade, which means McData users will look to other players," he said.

McData's 10 Gbps director will begin shipping this quarter and is priced at a 25% premium per port over the 6000 series. The company expects to announce OEM partners early this quarter.

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