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Cisco expands FC, converged Ethernet storage switching

A new 96-port FC switch and greater 40 gigabit converged Ethernet support for Nexus switches expands Cisco's support for all storage protocols.

Cisco added to its storage networking portfolio today with a 96-port 16 gigabit per second Fibre Channel (FC) switch and 40 gigabit converged Ethernet support across its Nexus 7700 and 7000 switches.

Cisco maintains the new rollouts show it remains committed to FC as well as IP storage based on Ethernet.

MDS 9396S SAN switch

The new 2U MDS 9396S scales from 48 to 96 ports in 12-port increments, or can be purchased with 96 ports. All 96 ports run at 16 gigabits per second (Gbps) line rate performance. Enterprise features include dual fans and power supplies for redundancy, non-disruptive upgrades and support for 4,095 buffer to buffer credits per port. It supports 32 Cisco Virtual SANs (VSANs). It also includes automated provisioning, a configuration wizard and the same operating system as other MDS switches and directors.

The MDS 9396S combines with the 1U MDS 9148S -- which shipped in late 2014 and scales from 12 to 48 ports -- to give Cisco 16 Gbps FC coverage from 12 to 96 multilayer fabric switch ports.

Cisco has a long history of converging things into IP networks.
Peter Christyresearch director, 451 Research

Cisco's FC switch rival Brocade has 24-port and 48-port edge switches, but requires customers to buy a 96-port enterprise switch or trunk smaller switches to get from 48 ports to 96 ports.

Nitin Garg, senior manager of product management for Cisco's data center group, said he expects the MDS 9396S to have a list price of approximately $120,000 for 96 ports. However, final prices for many sales will be set by Cisco's storage array and channel partners.

The MDS 9396S can be used for mid-range SANs in the 60- to 96-port range, or as a middle-of-row switch connected to the end-of-row MDS 9700 Director switch.

Could 40 GbE storage support usurp FC?

Cisco is also now supporting 40 gigabit Ethernet (GbE) connectivity for Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), NAS, iSCSI, IP-based object storage and LAN connectivity on its Nexus 7700 and 7000 switches. The 40 GbE was previously available on smaller Nexus 5600 and 2300 platforms. The expanded 40 GbE support provides 16 Gbps FC on Cisco MDS at the storage core and 40 GbE leaf-spine architecture for IP storage traffic. Customers can mix and match MDS, Nexus and UCS server products to build a unified fabric.

The additions are a 24-port 40 GbE Ethernet Module for Nexus 7700 18-slot, 10-slot, six-slot and two-slot switches, and a 12-port module for Nexus 7000 switches. The Nexus 7700 F3-Series 24-port 40 Gigabit Ethernet Module can deliver 960 Gbps of FC bandwidth.

Cisco is also adding FICON for mainframes in its MDS 9706 and MDS 9250i switches that began shipping in 2014. It also enhanced its Data Center Network Manager utility to add greater visibility and monitoring for SAN switches.

Garg said multiprotocol storage is more important than ever today as customers embrace the cloud and scale-out NAS and object storage for big data.

"To support all of these types of applications, it is critical that companies evolve beyond silos," he said. "They don't want a separate network for FC, separate network for iSCSI, a separate network for Hadoop, a separate network for NAS, and so on. That is not how you drive cost points lower and add operational simplicity.

"Storage needs are changing, and one of the new requirements is multiprotocol connectivity," he continued. "A storage networking product should support FC, FICON, FCIP for SAN extension, FCoE, NAS, iSCSI, and REST-based protocols such as HTTP. And all of these protocols should be converged."

Ed Diaz, senior network engineer at Adventist Health Systems (AHS) based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., said the greater converged 40 GbE support will give him more flexibility to manage his SAN. He uses MDS 9000 directors and Nexus 7000 and 5000 switches.

Diaz said AHS has greatly reduced its reliance on FC since becoming heavily virtualized a few years ago. He said all of his VMware ESX virtual servers connect to FCoE. He uses FC on his EMC VMAX storage array now only to connect to the few physical servers he still has, mainly those running his Oracle ERP system.

"We still have some applications on FC, but FC doesn't come into play for anything new that we do," he said. "We push our vendors heavily to do virtualization, and our virtualization is running FCoE. We've been running FCoE for more than two years."

AHS runs 40 GbE on Nexus switches, and will now be able to get 40 GbE support for FCoE on the same switches. "The value prop for us is to reduce the amount of cables we have," Diaz said. "Today, we run 40 GbE uplinks for each switch to the core. Now we will be able to do that with fewer 40 GbE modules."

Industry analysts say Cisco's long-term strategy is to move all traffic to Ethernet storage, but that has proven to be difficult. Cisco heavily invested in FCoE to drive that process, but FCoE remains largely a top-of-rack switch technology and is still rare in SANs.

"Cisco has a long history of converging things into IP networks," said Peter Christy, research director at 451 Research. "Nexus was introduced as a pathway for people to move from FC SAN technology to Ethernet. That's happened much more slowly than they thought.

"People who have SAN networks view moving to IP as a source of having problems. SAN users say, 'At some point, I'll probably do it, but why should I do it now? It would probably screw up something that works well today,'" Christy said.

He said 40 GbE could be the engine to accelerate a move from FC to Ethernet. For the first time, Ethernet has a bandwidth advantage over FC, which supports 16 Gbps today with 32 Gbps products expected to start trickling out no sooner than late 2015.

"FC was always way ahead of Ethernet in terms of high bandwidth, but things are getting faster at a remarkable rate in Ethernet switching," Christy said.

Steven Hill, senior analyst at Current Analysis, said the 40 GbE converged options for the Nexus 7000 "offers a useful alternative for customers who may be considering 40 Gbps FCoE as a viable alternative to upgrading their storage network to 32 Gbps FC in the future."

Hill said 40 GbE could be the turning point for Ethernet in storage. "Cisco has to make sure it integrates 40 GbE for when 32 Gbps FC arrives," he added.

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