Cisco enables low-end IP SANs — iSCSI router targets FC switches

By Dave Simpson

In a move that may signal the beginning of end-user adoption of IP storage area networks (SANs) and the iSCSI standard, Cisco last month began shipping a router that combines IP and Fibre Channel switching. According to analysts, the SN 5428 Storage Router is priced competitively, at $11,995 for two iSCSI Gigabit Ethernet ports and eight Fibre Channel ports (based on 1/2Gbps chips from QLogic).

"Users have started to believe that iSCSI is real, and the 5428 is a relatively low-cost way to experiment with iSCSI," says Richard Lee, president and CEO of The Storage Consulting Group. "And you can use Fibre Channel storage and servers. Cisco is definitely taking on Brocade and the other Fibre Channel switch vendors," he adds. (A joint development agreement between Cisco and Brocade fell apart earlier this year.)

"This is the first 'real' storage product from Cisco," says Arun Taneja, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group consulting firm. "The [precursor] 5420 was priced outrageously [at about $27,000 for only two ports]."

Analysts expect the introduction of the 5428 to kick off another round of price cutting in the 16-port Fibre Channel switch market, which has already happened in the 8-port switch market.

The 5428 Storage Router supports up to eight Fibre Channel ports and two Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Click here to enlarge image

At $11,995 for eight Fibre Channel ports, the 5428 does not rival the price-per-port of 8-port Fibre Channel switches, which are available for $625 per port. However, Cisco officials note that a 5428 coupled with a 48-port Catalyst 3550 switch costs $16,990, which they argue equates to 56 SAN ports at $303 per port.

In addition to Fibre Channel SANs, iSCSI-based IP SANs are a potential alternative to direct-attached storage and network-attached storage (NAS). Cisco is positioning the 5428 for enterprise workgroups and small to medium-sized companies—environments that typically don't have SAN experts.

According to Doug Ingraham, senior marketing manager in Cisco's Storage Technology Group, storage networks based on the iSCSI protocol provide traditional SAN advantages at lower prices than Fibre Channel SANs, while providing "adequate" performance for most workgroup-level applications. (Cisco ran a number of benchmarks in Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server environments comparing the two technologies. The test results are available on the company's Website.)

One early user of the 5428 is Wireless Retail, a Phoenix-based company that sells wireless products and services. In its Scottsdale collocation site, Wireless Retail migrated from direct-attached storage to consolidated storage. The company's servers, with iSCSI drivers, are connected over TCP/IP to two Catalyst 4000 Ethernet switches that link to two 5428 routers with back-end Fibre Channel storage (a Compaq MA8000 SAN array).

"With the SN 5428 we can keep our servers on the IP network using iSCSI and use Fibre Channel to connect our new pool of disk storage, which greatly reduces the cost of our overall SAN implementation," said Chris McMahan, Wireless Retail's CIO, in a prepared statement. "And because the 5428 is based on familiar IP technology, we're able to incorporate our knowledge of IP network management and performance tools."

Analysts such as the Enterprise Storage Group's Taneja say that all the requisite pieces are now available for IP SANs, including the following:

  • Affordable switches such as the 5428 and other multi-protocol switches from vendors such as Nishan Systems;
  • Native iSCSI target devices such as IBM's 200i disk array;
  • Host cards that offload TCP/IP and
  • iSCSI protocol processing, from vendors such as Alacritech and Intel (and, within the next month, Adaptec);
  • iSCSI host driver software from a variety of vendors; and
  • iSCSI virtualization software and appliances from vendors such as FalconStor and start-up StoneFly Networks (see related news story, above).

Nevertheless, analysts expect end users to mainly experiment with IP SANs this year, with more-widespread deployment starting next year. Analysts also expect adoption of iSCSI-based IP SANs to start in low-end environments where cost is more important than performance.

On the Fibre Channel side, the 5428 supports F_port, FL_port, and E_port connectivity, as well as zoning and LUN mapping/masking. On the IP side, the router supports IP networking features such as SNMP-based management, IPSec security, RADIUS and TACACS+ authentication, access control lists, VLANs, and Quality of Service (QoS).

Free iSCSI drivers are available for Windows NT/2000, Solaris, HP-UX, AIX, and Linux. For higher performance, users can connect the 5428 to servers equipped with cards that offload iSCSI and TCP/IP protocol processing.

This article was originally published on June 01, 2002