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Cisco offers new switch for SAN expansion

Users are buying smaller port-count switches to build out their SANs, and Cisco Systems has noticed. The company announced a new, entry-level storage switch Tuesday that ranges in size from 20 to 40 ports per switch.

Now that storage networks are here to stay, users are moving from SAN adoption to SAN expansion to accommodate data growth, a trend that has generated a need for smaller storage switches for use on the edge of the network. Brocade Communications Systems Inc. has an entry-level switch, as does McData Corp., but now networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. has entered the fray.

Cisco, San Jose, Calif., is the latest storage switch vendor to cater to user need for smaller switches with the introduction of the Cisco MDS 9100 Series Multilayer Intelligent fabric switches, which come in 20- and 40-port models and support 1 or 2 Gbps auto-sensing Fibre Channel connectivity. The switches will compete with the McData 4500 and the Brocade 3800.

According to a recent Storage magazine survey, users are buying smaller switches. More than 75% of users said their switch purchases in 2004 will be for switches with 32 or fewer ports.

There's a reason for the popularity of small switches. Many users are looking to build out their storage area networks (SANs) with one director-class switch in the middle and smaller port-count switches on the edge of the storage fabric.

"We are seeing a desire to expand the edges of the storage fabric outward from the data center. Smaller port-count switches help to fill the bill," said Data Mobility Group Inc. founder and senior analyst John Webster.

Cisco product manager Tom Harrington said the MDS 9120 and Cisco MDS 9140 are aimed at companies that intend to install a SAN and then have that SAN grow over time.

"You can do with this switch on the edge what you can do with a director in the middle of the SAN," Harrington said.

Randy Kerns, principal analyst for Greenwood Village, Colo.-based Evaluator Group Inc., said end users will need more ports in the future, which can be translated to mean higher port-count switches. "We expect to continue to see the number increase. Certainly the McData purchase of Sanera shows the trend in the director class," he said.

There are many reasons for both centralized and decentralized switches to really compete. According to Kerns, a vendor needs to offer both types.

Cisco's plan is to offer the same software management tools in its small switches as it does in its larger MDS 9000 product line. The Cisco MDS 9120 and Cisco MDS 9140 will ship with integrated management tools and the intelligent network services like virtual SANs (VSANs), role-based access control, virtual output queuing, and advanced SAN security and diagnostics. Also new to the Cisco switch line is the latest version of its SAN operating system, version 1.2.

The next upgrade of the Cisco MDS 9000 SAN-OS will add support for more connectivity, security and management features. Cisco said the most significant of these will be support for FICON, a high-speed mainframe transport protocol. As part of this, Cisco has licensed FICON control unit port (CUP) specifications from IBM Corp. to help manage SANs with attached mainframe hosts. Cisco expects to complete its FICON development by year's end, with IBM FICON qualification to follow.

The Cisco MDS 9100 is currently undergoing interoperability testing at EMC Corp., Hitachi Data Systems Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. Each of these Cisco partners is expected to qualify the Cisco MDS 9100 and Cisco MDS 9000 SAN-OS version 1.2 by the end of 2003 and will then make them available to their respective customers. HP is expected to make the Cisco MDS 9100 available by the end of September.

The pricing for the new switches has not been finalized. Cisco said its partners will ultimately determine the pricing for the MDS 9100 family. expert and Building Storage Inc. president Marc Farley said it's unclear where Cisco's headed.

"I believe they want to be the best 'plumbing' provider in the SAN industry. Like Brocade, with Rhapsody, they have the ability to add applications to their switches and directors, but I do not think Cisco has a clear strategy yet for what those applications ought to be," Farley said.

Farley said Cisco's products are sold through its storage partners. However, he added, "Cisco salespeople should be involved if you think volume purchase agreements will apply, as the sales rep may be able to facilitate special terms to their partners for volume opportunities."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kevin Komiega, News Editor

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