MaXXan upgrades intelligent switches

By Heidi Biggar

While vendors such as Cisco, Brocade, Maranti, and McData continue to focus on first-generation intelligent switch platforms, four-year-old start-up MaXXan this month began shipments of its second-generation switch platform--the MXV500 Intelligent SAN Switch.

The MXV500 is designed to give users greater flexibility in the way they configure, scale, and, ultimately, run applications such as replication, mirroring, snapshots, etc., in a storage network or fabric, company officials say.

MaXXan will continue to offer its initial appliance family in addition to the higher-end MXV500 switch platform. Appliance blades can be migrated to the MXV500 as storage network requirements change.

MaXXan introduced its initial intelligent switch family in February 2003. It consists of three appliances: the NAS Gateway and Card (SG110 and SG210), the Virtual Tape System and Card (SVT100 and 200), and the Disaster Recovery (DR) and Virtualization Appliance and Card (SA110 and SA210).

The idea of embedding intelligence, or applications, in a fabric on specialized switches is still a relatively new concept. Though 38% of respondents to an InfoStor reader survey said they would prefer to implement intelligence at the switch level, adoption has been slow to date.

Fabric-based intelligence compares to traditional host- and disk array-based approaches, which can be costly, difficult to manage, and, in the case of host-based applications, performance hogs.

"MaXXan's approach gives users flexibility in how they implement intelligence in the fabric," says Nancy Marrone-Hurley, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group consulting firm. "The new architecture and processors still support the company's initial blades, but they also allow users to run applications at each port."

This means users can run applications either in-band on an application blade, out-of-band at the port level, or a combination of the two, explains Marrone-Hurley. "For example, you could do replication on a port-by-port basis and run VTL on a blade for your backup servers."

With the in-band approach, both data packets and metadata go through the application blade. This compares to the out-of-band approach in which only the metadata goes through the application blade, while data packets go directly through the switch, which decreases latency, explains Marrone-Hurley.

According to Ravi Chalaka, vice president of marketing at MaXXan, the in-band configuration may be better for environments with fewer than 30 servers, where latency is less of an issue, while the switch-based configuration may be better for larger environments.

MaXXan claims that its out-of-band approach provides data path acceleration, is scalable to hundreds of ports (up to 512 with a double chassis configuration), reduces the need for host-based agents, and can lower overall total cost of ownership (TCO).

For further flexibility and scalability, the MXV500 platform supports two out-of-band software models: centralized and distributed.

The terms centralized and distributed describe how the storage service applications operate. "The centralized approach has the ability to run third-party services according to the Fabric Application Interface Standard [FAIS]," explains Marrone-Hurley.

With the centralized approach, the application blades control and manage all the ports in the switch with some limited processing/intelligence on each port. With the distributed model, users can run applications right at the port, according to Marrone-Hurley.

The primary control software is at the port level in Intelligent Line Cards, not in the Application Cards. "It's got lots of memory, which the software vendors like because they can run their software in the switch [on a blade or at the port level] pretty much without making any changes," says Chalaka.

MaXXan claims that the distributed approach has much lower latency and much higher scalability (to thousands of ports) than the centralized approach. On the downside, the distributed approach can be more difficult to manage (due to distributed agents).

Currently, Brocade, Cisco, and McData use the centralized FAIS model, while Maranti uses the distributed model and MaXXan supports both.

MaXXan's switch runs software from FalconStor (IPStor 4.0), Microsoft (Windows Storage Server 2003), and Veritas (NetBackup). The company is expected to make an announcement concerning software for the distributed model in the near future.

The MXV500 supports up to 256 ports in a single chassis (512 ports with a dual chassis); integrates 16 1.4GHz port-based dual Intel IXP2800 network processors; has 1.5GB of packet buffer memory, 12MB of SRAM memory (for table lookups), 32KB of shared internal SRAM and 80KB of distributed internal SRAM.

The switch currently supports 1Gbps/2Gbps Fibre Channel and will support 4Gbps and 10Gbps Fibre Channel in the future. It also supports Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP) for connecting SAN islands and will reportedly soon support iSCSI via a software upgrade.

Pricing starts around $95,000 for a mid-sized configuration with two intelligent line cards (32 ports) and a single application card.

This article was originally published on June 15, 2004