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Cisco's storage networking products threaten Brocade

Although they once teamed in an effort to build larger data-storage networks, the match-up between Cisco Systems and Brocade Communications Systems, once compared to an evenly-matched chess game, is getting seriously intense.

In June of last year, Cisco, the computer-networking equipment giant, and Brocade said they were teaming to connect their switches to form larger data-storage networks. But, within weeks of each other, each company has entered the market with products that could threaten their relationship.

"Vendors believe that whoever controls the center of the fabric, controls the network," said John Webster, an anyalst with the Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata.

But, Cisco claims that its relationship with Brocade will go unchanged. "I don't think our relationship with Brocade is any less strong than a year ago," said Carl Engineer, director of marketing for Cisco?s enterprise line of business. "We're working closely together on Fibre Channel support in the 15540 (new dense WDM device)."

Brocade could not be reached for comment.

Until now, however, Brocade was the obvious leader in that market. But, earlier this month, Cisco offered a series of announcements that makes it clear it is aiming for the prize. The announcements include Cisco's first storage network products and components, as well as which customers and companies will be involved with the plans.

Still, the move is no surprise to industry watchers, however. Last year, Cisco purchased NuSpeed Internet Systems, which was developing an IP-based alternative to Fibre Channel for transmitting SCSI-based storage traffic using a protocol called iSCSI. Now called Cisco's Storage Router Business Unit, NuSpeed continues to be active in the iSCSI standards movement, playing a high-profile role in the IP storage working group within the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), says Webster.

Perhaps even more important, is that Cisco has also been working to implement iSCSI as an IETF standard. Webster says many vendors have already started positioning themselves with regard to iSCSI. They're now waiting to see how the user base responds. If the response is strong, others will rush products to market.

Within days of Cisco's announcement, Fibre Channel stalwart Brocade announced plans to add support for both IP and Infiniband protocols to its new Fibre Channel switch.

"The more immediate impact will be on users," says Webster. "They are the real winners here and now have an alternative to Fibre Channel that they can at least explore and experiment with."

"I think Cisco's entry will raise the credibility of IP storage in particular and networked storage in general in the minds of users who have been skeptical about both," adds Webster. However, Webster warns that iSCSI is in the same danger of being overhyped as Fibre Channel was two years ago. "We still don't really know if this is going to work in a production data center environment," he says. "And many of the other components required are still not yet available. Until both of those conditions are met, all bets are off."

About the author: Alan Earls is a freelance writer in Franklin, Mass.

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