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Cisco FC director and switch moves to 16 Gbps, new chassis

Cisco rolls out its next generation Fibre Channel director and switch, with new chassis and 16 Gbps connectivity; yes, it also supports FCoE.

Cisco Systems today showed it remains committed to Fibre Channel networking with a new director and multiprotocol switch.

The Cisco MDS 9710 Multilayer Director and MultiService Fabric Switch bring Cisco to 16 Gbps Fibre Channel (FC) connectivity, nearly a year after its FC switch competitor Brocade rolled out 16 Gbps gear. More significantly, the MDS 9710 is the first new chassis for Cisco's flagship storage networking device since the MDS 9500 director switch began shipping 10 years ago. Cisco launched its MDS 9500 director and MDS 9100 switch in 2003, and added an MDS 9200 multi-service modular switch the next year. Cisco FC directors and switches have since been upgraded with the addition of line cards with new capabilities that plug into those chassis.

Brocade has boasted of its dominance in FC networking, while Cisco has thrown its weight behind Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) in its networking and storage products. Cisco's new products reflect its strategy of supporting FC while maintaining FCoE as a storage option.

The MDS 9710 supports FCoE as well as FC SANs. It has 48-port 16 Gbps FC or Fiber Connectivity (FICON) (for mainframes) line cards and holds up to 384 16 Gbps ports in a 4RU chassis for 24 Tbps of switching capacity. Cisco plans to add 48-port 10 Gbps Ethernet FCoE line cards later this year. Cisco storage customers can mix Cisco FC and FCoE cards in one box. The MDS 9710 supports N+1 redundancy for fans, and N:N redundancy for power supplies and in-service software upgrades for non-stop operation.

The MDS 9250i switch includes up to 40 16 Gbps FC/FICON ports, eight 10 GigE FCoE ports and a GigE or 10 GigE port for FC over IP (FCIP) or iSCSI. It also offers licensed features such as SAN Extension, Cisco I/O Accelerator and the Cisco Data Mobility Manager. SAN Extension enables FCIP tunneling for backup, replication and other disaster recovery features over distances; I/O Accelerator speeds WAN/MAN applications and provides encryption for backup and replicated data. The Data Mobility Manager migrates data between logical unit numbers and heterogeneous arrays.

Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), said the new chassis "fits with Cisco's design philosophy, going back a decade. Cisco took a networking approach that the chassis will last about a decade and they'll be upgradeable via line card. So this is their first major upgrade in a decade, and it's designed to go for the next decade."

The new Cisco FC director and switch can be used alongside Cisco's previous SAN devices, so customers can upgrade incrementally. Like the current Cisco MDS switches, the new devices use the same OS and management systems as Cisco's Nexus networking switches.

"Our architecture is different than our competition, which has separate products for Fibre Channel and FCoE, separate operating systems and management tools," said Nitin Garg, Cisco's senior manager of product management for data center solutions.

Cisco and its FC director rival Brocade have split over their forecasts for the future of FCoE and FC. Cisco, which comes from Ethernet roots, has been bullish on FCoE and Ethernet in storage networks. Brocade began as a FC vendor and said there is plenty of life yet in FC SANs. It sells Ethernet networking gear through an acquisition of Foundry Networks, but hasn't done much with FCoE.

Brocade moved to 16 Gbps FC in May 2012, and has already committed to supporting 32 Gb FC after standards are completed. Garg said he did not think Cisco was late to 16 Gbps because the end-to-end ecosystem of switching, host bus adapters and storage arrays is still in transition.

He stopped short of pledging 32 Gb support after saying, "Cisco is heavily investing in Fibre Channel. Customers will choose their own migration path. Some customers may choose to stay with FC and others may choose to move to FC. It doesn't matter to us; we're here to support both paths."

When asked again specifically about 32 Gb FC support, Garg said, "that is a future roadmap item, not something we are introducing at this point in time."

ESG's Laliberte said he expects rapid 16 Gbps adoption because trends such as virtual machine density, solid-state storage and the cloud require greater bandwidth. He said he expects Cisco to go to 32 Gb if the market goes there.

"It's a reasonable assumption Cisco is taking into consideration that people will go to 32 Gb," he said.

As for the rate of FCoE adoption, Garg said Cisco's popular unified computing system server is built on FCoE, so many customers are using it on the networking side. "SAN customers being a conservative set of customers," he noted, and Cisco storage customers have been evaluating it and it's in the early stages of deployment.

Garg said the MDS 9710 is in qualifications with Cisco's storage vendor OEM partners, including EMC, NetApp, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. The MDS 9250i is expected to be available to OEMs in the third quarter.

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