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Storage switch startup burns out, turns to security

The company formerly known as Maxxan has been rechristened CipherMax and is now marketing a storage switch/encryption appliance with one point of management.

The company formerly known as Maxxan Systems Inc., an intelligent switch provider, has re-emerged as CipherMax Inc., and with the help of a fresh $10 million in venture capital funding, is hoping to re-establish itself as a storage security player.

CipherMax has announced funding, branding and a new product line it claims can combine storage fabric management, key management and encryption into one hardware box and one software management console for an entire environment.

Maxxan first came on the scene in 2000, and like most other players offering intelligent switches at the time, struggled in a market that wasn't yet interested. Unlike many of those other players, however, intelligent switches were Maxxan's core business, and in a cutthroat switching market, one even McData Corp. did not survive alone, the company foundered.

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Now, according to Greg Farris, director of marketing for CipherMax, the company and its investors are hoping to latch on to rising interest in network-based intelligence in the industry, as well as buzz around storage security. "CipherMax was actually one of our applications prior to the rebranding," he said. "But it's now become our core brand as we realign from intelligent switches to where the real value is -- the applications that run on them."

The new products, called the CM100 series, are 1U Fibre Channel switches. The products come in two flavors for disk and tape, denoted with a "D" or a "T" in the product name. Models include the CM110T, CM140T, CM180T and CM180D. The CM110T, CM140T and the CM180D support 16 ports of 1 Gbps or 2 Gbps Fibre Channel and the CM180T will support 16 ports of 1 Gbps, 2 Gbps or 4 Gbps Fibre Channel. The CM110T can support up to four LTO-3 tape drives, the CM140T up to 16 and the CM180T up to 32. The CM180D can support four full-bandwidth disk array target ports and hundreds of encryption streams.

"Customers want to start tactically," Farris said of the decision to expand the product line down market. All of the CM100 series switches can be plugged in to the chassis belonging to the company's pre-existing larger intelligent switch products, now known as the CM250 and CM500, which have 128 ports and 256 ports respectively. Encryption support has also been added to the higher end models.

"The scalability of the product, as well as the combined management, are the real differentiation here," said Steve Norall, analyst with the Taneja Group. "Security people own the overall mandate to secure a company's data, but the storage guy is the one who has to encrypt the data at rest -- the combined management adds efficiency."

All products feature the company's SANCruiser fabric management software, a carryover from the Maxxan days. Included within the SANCruiser management console is a new subset of software called KeyCruiser, which creates a central key repository for all devices in the environment and allows keys to be backed up and archived offsite. Also included in the software package is an "emergency" version of the key management console that will run on any commodity server using a Linux interface in the event of a complete disaster at the primary site.

Competitors already on the prowl

CipherMax might have picked the right wave to ride in the marketplace this time around, Norall said, but "business execution will be key -- NeoScale and Decru have already amassed a good base of customers."

NeoScale Systems Inc.'s senior product manager Chris Winter was quick to poke holes in CipherMax's security story. "NeoScale believes that security products should be highly secure themselves," he said, pointing out that NeoScale's CryptoStor appliances are hardened boxes with "tamper proof" features to keep keys from being exposed if someone pries open the lid of the box. "Our operating system, firmware, software and everything in between them are certified at the highest possible levels," he said.

Winter also quibbled with the scalability argument by CipherMax, saying that though the switch modules have 16 blades, only four ports in each can run at full bandwidth. NeoScale's product, meanwhile, has four ports per node, and an eight-node cluster of CryptoStor tape encryption models can support up to 64 LTO-4 tape drives. Only the two highest end products in the CipherMax line can support more than 32 drives. "Their scalability is no different than ours," he said.

And so let the sniping begin. "We have about 800 megabytes per second (MBps) throughput on both the CM180T and CM180D, and if you plug more than four disk array ports into the CM180D, then we can load balance that 800 over all the ports as evenly as possible," wrote CipherMax CTO Mike Witkowski in an email to "Technically we can support more than four ports because in real life almost no array port ever reaches full bandwidth."

"CipherMax still has to prove themselves," was Norall's assessment. "But there is still room in this market for at least one or two more players with a good story."

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