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Cisco starts to connect converged data center dots

Cisco unveils the centerpiece of its unified fabric platform, but holds off on upgrades to its Fibre Channel storage switches.

Cisco Systems Inc. today revealed new pieces of its latest data center platform, which it sees as the framework for converged Fibre Channel and Ethernet networks.

The launch comes a week after rival Brocade Communications Systems Inc. pushed out its DCX Backbone product. Both Brocade's and Cisco's platforms are designed to accommodate the integration of Fibre Channel and Ethernet after 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GigE), Enhanced Ethernet and FCoE become significant pieces of the data center.

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Unlike Brocade's product rollout, Cisco did not make any changes or additions to its Fibre Channel switches today as part of what it calls Data Center 3.0. Cisco's MDS 9000 line of switches and directors will eventually tie into the unified fabric by way of new line cards that will allow all servers on the network to access Fibre Channel storage.

But that's at least a year away. Today, Cisco brought out Nexus unified fabric switches that will run on a new converged operating system and new Catalyst Ethernet switches.

Deepak Munjal, Cisco's manager of data center marketing, said there are no plans to replace the MDS 9000 with Nexus devices. He expects Fibre Channel to remain the major storage protocol because it handles storage better than Ethernet does. "Nexus will support storage applications going forward, but storage can't have dropped packets," he said. "MDS will continue as our Fibre Channel platform. If you've invested in Fibre Channel networks, all your investment will be preserved."

Munjal said he expects 8 Gbps Fibre Channel cards for MDS devices later this year and FCoE cards next year. The FCoE cards will likely come from Nuova Systems Inc., the startup company backed by Cisco. FCoE will support Fibre Channel and Ethernet, and deliver them to the Nexus backbone devices. Munjal said Nexus devices will also use FCoE line cards but won't support Fibre Channel natively.

Analyst Arun Taneja of the Taneja Group said he expects the fabric unification that Cisco and Brocade are pointing to will happen, but it will likely take more time than the vendors are claiming.

"The next generation data center is starting to happen," he said. "It's in the very early stages. It's still not clear to me that the unification of fabric is going to happen anytime soon."

Taneja said he expects Cisco and Brocade to have a lot of company -- and competition -- in setting up the framework for the emerging data center infrastructure. He expects IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and EMC Corp. to also take leadership roles in defining any data center architecture that eventually takes hold.

"It will come down to who defines all the interfaces, so other things can plug in," he said. "It can't just be everything from Cisco."

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