Switches and directors: The year in review

What to look for in 2005

By Ann Silverthorn

Users hungry for new products and more scalability for their storage-networking dollars found what they were looking for in 2004. Switch vendors spent the year broadening their portfolios, increasing scalability, lowering prices, and introducing new products that go beyond their traditional offerings.

For example, vendors known for playing in the high-end enterprise space are moving down market in an attempt to get a piece of the anticipated fast growth in the small to medium-sized business (SMB) market. And those vendors known more for their low-end fabric switch strengths are fighting to be noticed in the high-end enterprise space. For end users, this means being able to stick with one vendor as storage needs increase. Many users with tight budgets will be able to upgrade existing products instead of having to buy new ones.

For our end-of-the-year wrap-up of switches and directors, we contacted five of the major vendors in this space: Brocade, Cisco, CNT, McData, and QLogic.

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In the first half of 2004, Brocade, the leader in the fabric switch market, executed the largest refresh and expansion of its product lines in the company's history. At the high end, Brocade has been trying to break into the director market since it introduced the 64-port Silkworm 12000. Responding to customer feedback for more ports, the company introduced the 128-port (in a single domain) SilkWorm 24000 in May. (SilkWorm 24000 OEMs include vendors such as EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems, StorageTek, and Sun.)

Because directors can be a three- to five-year investment, Brocade's SilkWorm 24000 is designed to accommodate future technologies in the same chassis. For example, customers can start with a 2Gbps version, and an investment-protection program provides upgrade paths to future technologies such as higher speeds (4Gbps and 10Gbps), higher port counts (up to 256), and other functionality such as running virtualized applications or routing applications on add-in cards. The 24000 currently supports 2Gbps Fibre Channel and FICON.

In October, Brocade announced the 16/24/32-port Silkworm 4100 switches, which boast support for 4Gbps Fibre Channel. (Brocade was the first vendor to ship 4Gbps switches to OEMs.) All 4Gbps Fibre Channel devices are backward-compatible with 1Gbps and 2Gbps devices.

"When you interconnect switches in high-performance or large SANs, sometimes you need to trunk two or three ports together," says Tom Buiocchi, vice president of marketing at Brocade. "With a 1Gbps or 2Gbps switch, you have to consume several ports to get the right performance. With 4Gbps you don't have to do that as often, so it stretches investment dollars."

Although analysts do not expect a wholesale migration to 4Gbps Fibre Channel, applications that may require the new speed include high-speed backup, streaming video and other digital content applications, high-speed transaction processing, as well as inter-switch links.

Connecting SAN islands

Cisco this year continued to focus on multi-protocol switches and the ability to connect SAN islands with its MDS 9000 line of directors, fabric switches, and related products. Cisco has been shipping the MDS 9500 family of SAN directors for more than a year.

Gaining ground in the low-end and midrange markets (although not as much as originally expected), Cisco is applying its data networking expertise to storage networking. Earlier this year, Cisco's resellers qualified the 20/40-port MDS 9100 switches, which in part contributed to the company's market share gains in the low-end and midrange markets.

Cisco's biggest switch announcement of the year came last month with the introduction of the MDS 9216i fabric switch, MDS 9000 Multiprotocol Services (MPS) Module (both of which have 14 Fibre Channel ports and two Gigabit Ethernet IP ports for either iSCSI or FCIP), and the 2.0 version of its SAN-OS software (see "Cisco extends SANs," InfoStor, November 2004, p. 8).

The MDS 9216i and MPS module are functionally identical, but the 9216i is a stand-alone device and the MPS module is a line card that plugs into MDS 9500 or 9200 series switches.

Cisco also hopes to differentiate itself on the router front. "Our competitors offer multi-protocol routers, but they're separate devices that you have to buy to provide the routing function," says Jackie Ross, vice president of marketing in Cisco's storage technology group. "We put the routing function into our ASICs."

Building portfolios

The biggest news for McData-the market share leader in the director segment-this year was the broadening of its product portfolio. Late last year, McData introduced the first product to result from its acquisition of Nishan Systems, the Eclipse 1620. Most recently, McData introduced the 16-port (12 2Gbps Fibre Channel and four Ethernet ports) Eclipse 2640 SAN router (see "McData router consolidates SAN islands," InfoStor, November 2004, p. 8).

The Eclipse 2640, which uniquely supports the iFCP protocol (as well as Fibre Channel and iSCSI), can be used to link heterogeneous SANs and is compatible with switches/directors from competitors Brocade, Cisco, CNT, and QLogic. These routers join McData's Sphereon switches and Intrepid directors (which include the high-end Intrepid 10000) to round out the company's hardware product line.

McData is unique among the major switch hardware vendors in that it sells SAN management software-SANavigator-for managing heterogeneous storage networks. That's one reason the company emphasizes manageability and high port counts.

"There is continued pressure on IT managers to do more with less, so they're constantly trying to figure out how to increase the number of storage ports per administrator," says Peter Dougherty, vice president for switch platforms at McData.

"The average amount of storage an administrator can deal with today is 10TB. Companies are looking for tools to double that amount," he adds.

Scalability and mixed protocols

This summer, CNT announced its UltraNet Multi-service Director (UMD), a new class of director designed to offer scalability in ports, speeds, and mixed protocols. "It helps customers build on-demand storage networks cost effectively with investment protection as they go forward," says Doug Ingraham, senior director of SAN switching at CNT. The UMD supports Fibre Channel and FICON and in the future will support iSCSI and FCIP.

Users will be able to start with 32 ports (the 32-port UMD is due in the first half of 2005) and eventually scale to 512 ports (the current high-end version supports 256 ports). The director is multi-protocol, so users can add ports and intermix protocols (e.g., consolidating a FICON environment with an open systems Fibre Channel environment under one platform). Looking ahead, since the UMD has a blade-based architecture, users that require more speed will be able to upgrade to 4Gbps by adding blades instead of replacing platforms.

Ingraham claims that users will be able to use the same director for four to seven years. "In the SAN industry, most directors have been on three-year leases," says Ingraham. "We'll extend the useful life of the switch, and the cost to customers will be on a per-port basis." (For fabric switches, as opposed to directors, CNT partners with Brocade to offer a core-to-edge architecture.)

Rack 'em, stack 'em

Following the trend in the IP/Ethernet switch market, QLogic early this year introduced the first stackable Fibre Channel switch, the SANbox 5200, which included another industry first-10Gbps inter-switch links (ISLs). Benefits include better scalability, space and cable savings, and a decrease in the number of ISLs required in multi-switch SANs.

In October, QLogic introduced its first 4Gbps stackable Fibre Channel switch-the SANbox 5602-which also includes 10Gbps ISL ports. The company also announced the SANbox 3050, an entry-level, 8-port, 2Gbps fabric switch that comes with wizard-based installation and configuration tools for SAN novices. As are other vendors, QLogic is leading the charge for end-user adoption of Fibre Channel SANs in the SMB market with both low-cost switches and Fibre Channel host bus adapters (HBAs).

Coming next year

"In 2005, everything is going to be faster with higher port densities in director-class switches," says Cisco's Ross. "We'll see early adopters of SANs consolidating SAN islands. Higher speeds will be required for inter-switch links, so we'll see 4Gbps switches and directors and 10Gbps inter-switch links in 2005."

"A lot of the focus is on speed. Product families from all vendors will roll over to 4Gbps technology next year," says Frank Berry, vice president of corporate marketing at QLogic.

"We see 4Gbps technology as the next logical step for tape drives and HBAs," says Brocade's Buiocchi. "In 2005, we hope that 4Gbps will become the standard for tape backups and other performance-intensive applications."

McData plans to focus on growth in low-end switches and will roll out 4Gbps switches in the first half of 2005. "Historically, our strength has been in the high-end segment, but we're focusing on growth in the low-end switch market," says McData's Dougherty.

CNT intends to expand its UMD platform in port count and scalability and to add WAN blades to the platform. In addition, "we'll allow customers to [implement] storage services for tiered storage and information life-cycle management applications directly on the switch," says CNT's Ingraham.

Cisco's Ross adds that better standards will be necessary to satisfy budget-conscious IT organizations. "In order to match customers' applications to the most cost-effective storage and the most cost-effective connectivity, there must be better standards throughout the industry for all of the various components to interoperate," says Ross. "The industry will grow when we have true plug-and-play interoperability. It took us years to get to that stage in data networking and we need to get to that point in storage networking."

Ann Silverthorn is a freelance writer in Erie, PA.

This article was originally published on December 01, 2004