Cisco squares off against Brocade, McData

By Dave Simpson

Within the next two months, Cisco plans to begin shipping its first wave of Fibre Channel switches, pitting the company against entrenched incumbents such as Brocade (the market leader in fabric switches) and McData (which leads in the number of director-class switches). Multi-protocol versions of Cisco's switches, supporting the iSCSI and FCIP standards, are expected in the March-to-April time frame.

John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, stated that the company plans to be "number one or number two" in the markets for both Fibre Channel fabric switches and directors. (Directors differ from fabric switches primarily in that they have higher port counts—64 or more—and higher levels of fault tolerance.)

Cisco's late entry into the market comes at a time when annual revenue for Fibre Channel switches and directors is topping the $1 billion mark. The Gartner Group expects the market to rise from $1.2 billion this year to $4.3 billion in 2006.

Analysts say that the battle among Cisco, Brocade, and McData will be intense (and the outcome impossible to predict), but for IT managers it means one more option in a market that has been short on vendor alternatives (see charts on the cover). But the real question for end users is whether Cisco brings anything to the table other than its obvious size advantages. According to analysts, the answers are "yes, no, and maybe."

Arun Taneja, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group, says that Cisco may have advantages in the modularity of its products, but that it is unclear how important that will be to end users. Cisco's MDS (Multilayer DataCenter Switch) 9000 family ranges from 16-port devices to a 256-port director and will be available in a variety of switch sizes and plug-in modules, or "blades" (see "at a glance: Cisco's MDS switches").

Regarding modularity, Brocade officials argue that it doesn't matter whether you scale at the blade or switch level. "We can build out modular meshed fabrics with 16-port switches," says Steve Beer, director of product marketing at Brocade. "There's no real difference whether you scale with switches or blades as long as you're cost-effective."

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Cisco's 16-port fabric switch includes an expansion slot that allows users to configure it with as many as 48 ports, giving it the highest port count among fabric switches (most of which are limited to fixed configurations of eight, 16, or 32 ports).

This month, McData introduced a 24-port fabric switch (that can be upgraded in 8-port increments), as well as a 140-port director (see "McData expands switches, directors," below).

Cisco is not expected to have price-per-port advantages over its competitors. Jackie Ross, vice president of marketing at Andiamo, says that Cisco will price its switches and directors "about the same or at a slight premium" vs. its direct competitors. Cisco's switches were developed by Andiamo (see "Cisco to acquire Andiamo," p. 12).

Performance: Bandwidth vs. latency

On the performance front, Cisco claims to have the highest internal bandwidth, at 1.44Tbps, but even Ross admits that that's overkill for today's 1Gbps and 2Gbps link speeds. However, she notes that the high bandwidth will become important when end users move to 10Gbps networks. In comparison, Brocade and McData directors have an internal bandwidth of 256Gbps.

However, in the switch market, overall performance involves both bandwidth and latency. And in terms of latency, Cisco may be at a disadvantage versus competitors such as McData.

"I would speculate that, given the crossbar architecture, Cisco's directors will have higher latencies than McData's directors, which could be a significant factor in transactional applications," says Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting.

Multi-protocol support

One eventual differentiator may be Cisco's support for multiple protocols (Fibre Channel, iSCSI, and FCIP).

"The core data-center storage requirements today are primarily Fibre Channel, but we'll give customers the ability to do FCIP for long-distance connectivity or iSCSI where Fibre Channel isn't cost effective," says Andiamo's Ross.

However, multi-protocol support may be a short-lived advantage. According to sources, McData may support FCIP in about the same time frame (Q2) as Cisco. McData officials declined to comment on the company's plans for multi-protocol support. In addition, Cisco may face competition from a number of start-ups such as Maranti Networks and Rhapsody Networks that are readying multi-protocol switches.

Brocade has not made specific announcements concerning support for multiple protocols. (A deal between Brocade and Cisco, in which Brocade would develop an FCIP blade for Cisco's Catalyst switches, collapsed earlier this year.)

Support for multiple protocols—instead of pure Fibre Channel switches—may be Cisco's trump card.

"Cisco's big play—and real differentiator—will be the seamless integration of iSCSI and Fibre Channel," says Staimer.

Although Cisco may have advantages in the area of IP storage protocols, its directors—unlike those from Inrange and McData—do not support the FICON protocol.

One potential advantage for Cisco is that its switch/director management software will be integrated with the company's existing management software—a significant plus for IT shops that already have Cisco switches and routers. In addition, the switch management software works across the company's entire product line.

Cisco announced a slew of software services with its switches, but analysts say that it is too early to tell if the company will have any competitive advantages in terms of software management functionality.

Like other storage vendors, Cisco plans to support emerging standards such as the Common Information Model (CIM) and Bluefin.

The company also announced support for a number of security standards and technologies, including SSH, Radius, SNMPv3, RBAC, FC-SP, hardware-enforced zoning, LUN zoning, ACLs, and VSANs.

Cisco hopes to differentiate its switches with the VSAN (Virtual SAN) technology. VSANs are closely related to VLANs and allow users to logically partition a single physical storage area network (SAN) into many independent SANs. Each VSAN runs its own set of fabric services and can be subdivided through zoning.

The key advantage, according to Cisco officials, is the ability to build significantly larger SANs because disruptions within any one SAN will not impact the rest of the storage network. qcharts- Brocade, McData lead Fibre Channel switch, director markets.

Cisco to acquire Andiamo

Cisco's acquisition of Andiamo Systems, a switch manufacturer in San Jose, could be valued at anywhere from $0 to $2.5 billion, based on a number of factors. The deal is not expected to close until the first half of 2004.

The actual price that Cisco will pay for Andiamo is based primarily on

  • Sales of Andiamo products by Cisco during a three-month period shortly preceding the closing of the deal; and
  • A multiple based on Cisco's sales and market capitalization.

Although Andiamo is privately held, Cisco has poured approximately $74 million into the start-up since early 2001 and has about a 44% equity stake in the company. No other public companies or venture capital firms have invested in Andiamo.

The company was founded in January 2001 and has approximately 270 employees, who will join Cisco's Storage Technology Group when the acquisition closes.

Andiamo isn't Cisco's first storage acquisition. About two years ago, Cisco acquired NuSpeed, which led to Cisco's 5420 and 5428 storage routers.

At A Glance: Cisco's MDS switches

Cisco's Multilayer DataCenter Switch (MDS) 9000 family comprises the MDS 9500 series of directors, MDS 9216 fabric switch, and MDS 9000 modules.

The MDS 9500 directors will come in versions with six (9506), nine (9509), and 13 (9513) slots. They support up to 256 ports per chassis (in the 9513), or 768 ports per rack. Features include redundant hardware components, non-disruptive software upgrades, fail-over, a 1.44Tbps crossbar interconnect, and up to 160Gbps per slot.

The MDS 9216 is a 1Gbps/2Gbps Fibre Channel fabric switch that includes one fixed slot with 16 ports and one 32-port expansion slot for a total of 48 ports per switch. Pricing starts at $29,995 for a 16-port configuration.

MDS 9000 modules include 16- and 32-port blades and an 8-port IP storage module that will support any combination of iSCSI and FCIP ports. The IP storage module can be plugged into any of Cisco's fabric switches or directors.

The 9509, 9216, and 16/32-port 9000 modules are expected to ship in December. The 9506, 9513, and 8-port IP storage module are due in the first half of next year.

Common security features across the product family include standard Fibre Channel functions such as hardware-enforced zoning and LUN masking, Radius server authentication, SNMPv3, role-based access control and access control lists, Secure Shell, Secure File Transfer Protocol, and Virtual SANs.

All of the switches and directors can be managed with the Cisco Fabric Manager software suite, which includes functions such as topology discovery, fabric configuration and verification, monitoring, and fault resolution.

So far, Cisco has announced interoperability testing with Adaptec, ADIC, BMC Software, EMC, Emulex, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM/Tivoli, JNI, Netreon, QLogic, StorageNetworks, and Veritas.

Brocade responds to Cisco announcement

At a Salomon Smith Barney conference last month, Brocade CEO Greg Reyes returned Cisco's fire, citing Brocade's entrenched position as the Fibre Channel switch market leader. Brocade claims more than 10,000 SAN customers and has shipped approximately two million Fibre Channel ports. Reyes also noted that Brocade has OEM relationships with virtually all of the major storage vendors—a list that includes EMC, IBM, Hitachi Data Systems, and Hewlett-Packard.

Analysts say that Brocade's (as well as McData's) installed base and OEM entrenchment may in fact pose formidable obstacles for Cisco because end users are loath to "rip and replace" expensive equipment such as switches, and OEMs are unlikely to switch suppliers without sufficient motivation.

"For an OEM to change its supplier requires a compelling financial and/or technology reason," says Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting. Analysts expect most of the large storage vendors to resell Cisco's storage switches, but they doubt that those vendors will give Cisco's gear priority over their current suppliers' switches. It is also unlikely that any of the large OEMs will ditch current suppliers in favor of Cisco.

Brocade officials put a positive spin on Cisco's storage switch announcement by saying that it "legitimized" Fibre Channel. "Cisco's entry legitimizes Fibre Channel as the dominant data-center backbone for storage," says Steve Beer, director of product marketing at Brocade, "and a lot of the features and functions they alluded to are things that we've been developing and delivering over the last year."

McData expands switches, directors

This month, McData introduced a 24-port Fibre Channel switch and a 140-port director-class switch. The 24-port Sphereon 4500 replaces the company's 16-port 3216 fabric switch, and the 140-port Intrepid 6140 more than doubles the port count of McData's existing 64-port directors.

Although the 1U 4500 comes with 24 ports, users can "buy" (activate) ports in 8-port increments because of McData's Flexport technology, providing users with "capacity-on-demand." Pricing is less than $1,000 per port. For example, units with 16 and 24 ports activated are priced at $15,000 and $22,000, respectively. Compared to standard 16-port switches, the 24-port devices decrease the number of ports required for inter-switch links in multi-switch configurations, which increases the number of usable ports (see diagram).

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McData's SANpilot management software is included in the pricing and provides functions such as fabric and topology views, zoning, performance and health monitoring, and fault isolation.

Switch features include support for loop (as well as fabric) configurations, non-disruptive code load/activation, and redundant power and cooling.

The 140-port Intrepid 6140 director base unit has 64 ports, which users can upgrade in 4-port increments. In addition to Fibre Channel, the 12U 6140 supports FICON. McData officials claim availability of more than 99.999%. Pricing on the 2Gbps 6140 director was not available at press time.

This article was originally published on October 01, 2002