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Cisco overhauls SAN software

In its biggest announcement since the debut of the MDS 9000 family of storage switches, Cisco Systems has revamped its entire storage management software package to give users more options for connecting and managing SANs.

In what it has deemed its biggest announcement since the debut of the MDS 9000 family of storage switches, Cisco Systems Inc. has revamped its entire storage management software package.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco today introduced five new storage networking features for the Cisco MDS 9000 family of multilayer intelligent directors and fabric switches. Cisco said it has improved logical connections between multiple physical and virtual SANs (VSANs), as well as quality of service, FICON connectivity for mainframes, IP storage enhancements using FCIP, and support for several management standards.

The new features will be available through the Cisco MDS 9000 SAN-OS 1.3, the latest version of the platform's operating system, which will hit the streets within the next 60 days.

Rajeev Bhardwaj, product manager for the Cisco MDS 9000 product family, said that, although there is no new hardware to speak of, Cisco's new software will enhance the overall intelligence of the MDS platform.

"This is simply a software-only upgrade," Bhardwaj said. "Users don't have to buy any additional appliances, and we can do routing between physical fabrics and virtual fabrics, unlike our competition, which can only do routing between physical fabrics."

Bhardwaj said Cisco's routing capabilities, through the new Inter-VSAN Routing feature, allow servers in different VSANs to share common storage resources, like disk and tape, located either locally or remotely, while maintaining the security, scalability and availability of VSANs. Inter-VSAN Routing enables selective transfer of data traffic among devices without merging VSANs into a single logical fabric, according to Bhardwaj.

While Cisco is claiming that Inter-VSAN Routing and many of its other new features represent "industry firsts," some experts beg to differ.

"It is difficult to say any of these are firsts, as none are yet shipping products," said Richard Villars, vice president of storage systems for International Data Corp. "I would note that individual areas of functionality addressed by Cisco and Brocade were delivered in previously shipping products from Nishan [Systems], SANCastle and even Cisco in its iSCSI router."

Villars said Brocade was the first major SAN infrastructure vendor to announce its intent to deliver a comprehensive suite of SAN routing products that address the issues of SAN segmentation, SAN gateways and SAN extension. He added that Cisco was the first to announce the bundling of Fibre Channel-to-Fibre Channel segmentation functions within the SAN switch itself.

"Both are interesting and signal a new level of market maturation, but each will require a significant expansion in complementary SAN implementation services to be truly useful for customers," he said.

The company is also offering both Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP) write acceleration and compression, which reduces write input/output (I/O) latency and increases bandwidth utilization during FCIP transactions.

Next on Cisco's upgrade list is support intermixing of open systems protocols like Fibre Channel, iSCSI, FCIP and FICON management on the same switch through VSANs. Cisco said that being able to manage mainframe systems using the Cisco MDS 9000 protects the customer's investment in legacy devices, which are still widely available in enterprise data centers.

Cisco's MDS 9000 SAN-OS 1.3 also includes an enhanced, server-based version of the Cisco Fabric Manager, the embedded, graphical network management tool for the entire Cisco MDS 9000 Family. Cisco Fabric Manager Server (FMS) offers centralized management of multiple physical fabrics, continuous discovery, health and event monitoring, and historical performance monitoring with drill-down capabilities.

Cisco is also supporting switch-to-switch and server-to-switch authentication through the Fibre Channel Security Protocol (FC-SP) and the Common Information Model (CIM) interface, based on the Storage Management Interface Specification (SMI-S).

"The [quality of service] feature is an industry first, although we expect that a number of vendors will announce similar capability in the future," said Nancy Marrone-Hurley, a senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group Inc., Milford, Mass.

Marrone-Hurley said Cisco has essentially put policy-based intelligence in front of its existing Fibre Channel congestion functionality, guaranteeing bandwidth for specific applications.

She added that Inter-VSAN routing is unique because Cisco is the only vendor that offers VSANs in the first place. "This new software feature allows for sharing of resources across a VSAN where one element, such as a tape library, could be shared across multiple VSANs," she said. "Conceptually, this is similar to Brocade's SAN extension, however the implementation is [different], as Brocade requires a separate switch to act as the isolating device, [whereas] Cisco does this in software."

The Cisco MDS 9000 SAN-OS 1.3 is now available to Cisco's Original Storage Manufacturer partners for interoperability qualification testing. Cisco said that each of its partners, including EMC Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Hitachi Data Systems, is expected to qualify the Cisco MDS 9000 SAN-OS 1.3 within 60 days.

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

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