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Cisco SAN line expands with 16 Gbps Fibre Channel switching platform

Cisco says it remains committed to Fibre Channel with its new 16 Gbps FC MDS 9706 Director and MDS 9148S department switch, plus Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) line card.

Cisco rounded out its 16 Gbps Fibre Channel SAN platform today with a new director switch -- a standalone switch for small companies and departments -- and a Fibre Channel over Ethernet module for the directors.

The new Cisco SAN devices are the MDS 9706 Director, MDS 9148S Multilayer Fabric Switch and the MDS 9700 FC over Ethernet (FCoE) module. They expand Cisco's 16 Gbps platform that first launched in April 2013 with the MDS 9710 Multilayer and MDS 9250i MultiServices Switch.

Cisco moved from 8 Gbps to 16 Gbps FC nearly a year after its rival Brocade, but Cisco SAN executives said they are fully committed to the storage protocol.

"Cisco is focused on Fibre Channel, and using Ethernet and Fibre Channel seamlessly in networks," said Nitin Garg, Cisco's senior manager of product management for data center switching.

The MDS 9706 is a six-slot 192-port 9RU director switch and follows the 10-slot 384-port MDS 9710 released in 2013. The MDS 9706 supports 16 Gbps FC or 10 Gigabit FCoE ports. It also includes N+1 fabric redundancy, and hot-swappable redundant supervisors, power supplies and fans.

The MDS 9700 FCoE Module includes 48 port 10 Gbps FCoE and plugs into the MDS 9710 and 9706 Directors, allowing interoperability between the directors and Cisco Nexus and UCS Fabric Interconnect switches.

"You can do a SAN refresh now and grow into the new chassis -- you don't have to rip and replace," Garg said.

Cisco FC directors are sold mainly through storage vendors, including EMC, NetApp, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HP). They are also part of pre-packaged bundles such as VCE Vblock (with EMC storage), EMC Vspex, NetApp FlexPod, HDS UCP-Select and Nimble Storage SmartStack.

Department switch for easy scaling

The MDS 9148S is a 1 RU device based on Cisco's "switch on a chip" Storage Network ASIC. It starts at 12 ports and scales to 48 ports in one chassis. Customers can add 12-port licenses on a pay-as-you-grow basis. It supports up to 32 Virtual SANs (VSANs) and Inter-VSAN Routing (IVR), plus non-disruptive upgrades, quality of service, port channels and N-Port ID Virtualization (NPIV) features included in Cisco's director switches. The MDS 9148S also comes with hot-swappable redundant power supplies and fans for high availability.

In some ways, Cisco is playing catchup to its SAN switch rival Brocade in 16 Gbps FC. Besides getting the jump on Cisco in going to 16 Gbps, Brocade has three switches, plus a 384-port Backbone director.

However, Cisco bills the MDS 9148S as more versatile than Brocade's small SAN switches. It competes against the Brocade 6505 that scales to 24 ports and the Brocade 6510 that goes from 24 ports to 48 ports. Brocade also has a 96-port 6520 switch.

The Cisco scaling advantage is that customers don't have to add a new switch after 24 ports. Cisco claims its pricing -- $10,800 for 12 ports, $21,260 for 24 ports and $42,420 for 48 ports -- is 28% to 60% lower than Brocade prices for the same number of ports.

"Instead of breaking it up and making multiple switches, Cisco configured it so it can go from 12 ports to 48 ports on a single switch," said Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst for Enterprise Strategy Group.

Shawn Ewing, IT manager for San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and Their Families agency, was a beta tester for the MDS 9148S and plans to put it into production with a new 27 TB EMC VNX 5100 SAN. Ewing's agency switched from an aging HP MSA storage system and Brocade switches.

Ewing said the MDS 9148S allows him to grow from his current 12 ports without adding a new switch. It gives his agency the same technology that the main IT department for the City of San Francisco uses, which could help if he has support problems.

"It's great to be able to upgrade in place," Ewing said. "I can get my base product in place and upgrade as I need it. We're a small department and we can't afford the VCE Vblocks [a combination of EMC storage and Cisco switching and servers] that our larger departments have. But if I need support, I can call my mothership for help. The department of technology for the city has EMC and Cisco UCS already in place."

SAN management software

Cisco has also added SAN management features to Cisco Prime Data Center Network Manager software. The MDS 9700 Directors can now detect factors that can cause problems, such as speed mismatch between devices, problems with host bus adapters, and physical and virtual server performance issues.

The vendor added three new SAN monitoring features. Switch Health Score combines switch alerts into an overall score to tell admins when a problem may be imminent. End-to-end-visibility into compute, network and storage domains has been added, as well as automated path redundancy analysis that proactively finds problems in Cisco SAN and network domains.

FC is not as dominant as it once was with SANs, but it remains the choice for organizations that need the highest performance for block storage.

ESG's Laliberte said most of the growth in the data center today is for unstructured data, which often does not require FC storage. However, the performance needs of flash storage and higher density virtual machines drive large organizations to expand their FC connectivity.

"Fibre Channel in general seems to be flattening out," he said. "But people who have those needs are doubling down. Smaller companies often get away from FC and go to Ethernet, but people with large FC environments are continuing to invest."

Next Steps

Fibre Channel ranks high in storage for growing data

FC advances, but Ethernet stands its ground

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