Cisco takes aim at storage networks

Posted on September 01, 2000

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Network giant acquires NuSpeed

By Richard R. Lee

Cisco has set its sights directly on the growing storage area network (SAN) market as its next target of opportunity. In response to customer and partner requests, as well as its own need to develop markets outside of its virtual monopoly areas, the company has embarked on a series of moves to ensure that it captures a share of the storage networking market.

According to Duncan Potter, product line manager of Cisco's enterprise business, "Cisco's fundamental approach to pursuing these opportunities is based on three parallel streams of development, all intended to take the emphasis off of SAN plumbing and to focus on delivering what customers are asking for on a global basis."

Cisco's first move was to roll out its Metro 1500 series metropolitan area network (MAN) dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) product line in May. This optical infrastructure is intended to support all types of dark fiber in metropolitan areas and to support protocols such as Gigabit Ethernet (GbE), ATM, Fibre Channel, and ESCON/FICON, enabling customers to connect their networking and storage environments over much longer distances. EMC was an early supporter of this announcement.


A SAN router can link Fibre Channel and SCSI devices to servers over an IP network such as Gigabit Ethernet (GbE). Special drivers are required on each host.
Click here to enlarge image

The second pillar of Cisco's strategy was the announcement of a joint technology agreement with Brocade Communications (see InfoStor, July 2000, p. 1), the market leader in Fibre Channel switches. The agreement will allow Cisco's Catalyst 6000 series IP switches to act as a wide-area interconnect for SAN "islands," in an effort to create MAN and WAN storage environments. This will deliver on SAN promises such as disaster recovery, remote data manipulation, and content distribution.

The most recent announcements in Cisco's storage networking strategy were its equity investments in Giganet and SAN Valley Systems (see sidebars), along with the acquisition of NuSpeed this summer. These moves were designed to foster the development of products that will enable Fibre Channel SAN and SCSI-based devices to be connected over Ethernet and IP-based networks, while delivering higher levels of performance by eliminating bottlenecks. Additionally, Cisco is using its influential position in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to foster the standardization of these technologies, further ensuring the company's pivotal role (and revenue stream) in the future of both IP and SANs.

Acquires NuSpeed

Cisco pre-empted NuSpeed's scheduled August 7th coming-out party in late July by purchasing the startup for approximately $450 million in stock. At that time, NuSpeed was ramping up to announce its "iSCSI" product initiatives and first-generation deliverables. Those products, which provide a Gigabit Ethernet link between Fibre Channel-based SAN islands and IP infrastructures, will now be released under the Cisco label. Cisco officials say the NuSpeed acquisition complements Cisco's alliance with Brocade.

Fore some time, Maple Grove, MN-based NuSpeed has been quietly leading the charge in the IETF community to come up with a common standard for SCSI over IP. It has been working diligently with the IBM-Cisco team (see InfoStor, June 2000, p. 1), Agilent Technologies, SANgate, and others to develop a uniform approach to bringing the technology to market. The approach involves current-generation network interface cards (NICs), switches, and other IP-based infrastructure devices, combined with specific software residing on each host to facilitate SCSI support. NuSpeed has also developed a proposal for an iSCSI MIB to support deployment in enterprise environments

NuSpeed officials believe one of the key advantages of iSCSI, besides its inherent distance enhancements, is the addition of a comprehensive security mechanism for SANs, an Achilles heel of Fibre Channel infrastructures today. This is particularly important for storage services providers, application services providers, and other services providers. NuSpeed also claims that it will be the first to provide an enterprise SAN with varying qualities of service, depending on the application or data being manipulated.

Analysis

With the acquisition of NuSpeed, and its other maneuvers, Cisco has now put a stake in the ground in regard to IP SANs. Clearly, Cisco intends to have a direct role in the realization of IP-driven storage networks, including network-attached storage (NAS).

Cisco's strategy has proven to be effective so far, as the company has managed to almost overnight capture the attention of most of the SAN critics who have long complained about the lack of focus and true interoperability in the Fibre Channel community at large. In the end, whether your SAN is an island or an interconnected set of continents, Cisco will likely become a key player in any solution, regardless of the data transport utilized.

It should come as no surprise that Cisco wants to be a dominant player in the SAN market. However, its entry into, and potential domination of, the market is a mixed blessing. The company has the potential to bring true order to the SAN chaos, and to overcome many of the remaining interoperability and distance-related hurdles that face the Fibre Channel community.

However, this salvation is not without a price. Through its growth-by-acquisition strategy, Cisco has become a behemoth in the networking market and is either challenging or has vanquished most of the long-established leaders in networking and the Internet infrastructure industry.

It takes no leap of faith to assume that, as the Fibre Channel industry goes through an inevitable consolidation phase, Cisco will emerge as a dominant player. As such, some of today's Fibre Channel vendors may not survive, leading to less competition.


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