Analyst View: Intelligent switches turn the corner

Virtualization and fabric-based applications are slowly gaining acceptance as end users realize the potential benefits.

By Heidi Biggar

After spiking the hype meter a few years ago and then all but disappearing from users’ and vendors’ radar screens shortly thereafter, storage virtualization and fabric-based applications have resurfaced-and this time, all signs indicate they are here to stay.

Does that mean users have begun asking for “storage virtualization” products by name? No, and they likely won’t for several years. But what they are asking for today are more-efficient ways to run and manage applications, or storage services, in SANs, and storage virtualization is a means toward that end.

According to ESG Research, the majority of early adopters (76%) of intelligent storage networks are looking to simplify management of their storage resources by implementing technologies that can help them eliminate vendor lock-in.

Explains one early adopter: “The primary reason we went with an intelligent storage network solution was that we didn’t want to be dependent on any one hardware vendor. We wanted the flexibility and economic benefits of a heterogeneous infrastructure.”

Storage virtualization’s primary job is to “neutralize” the SAN environment-i.e., to strip it of its proprietary nature-so that “like” and “unlike” storage systems can play together seamlessly. It enables users to aggregate data from heterogeneous disk arrays into a single pool of data, which can then be allocated to applications on an as-needed basis and according to pre-defined rules and service level agreements (SLAs). As such, storage virtualization is the foundation of an information life-cycle management (ILM) strategy.

What is virtualization?

Storage virtualization has been described as the operating system of a SAN. By eliminating hardware “bias” and enabling storage resources to communicate with one another regardless of vendor, virtualization makes it easier, potentially less expensive, and more efficient to run a variety of storage applications in a SAN-applications that until recently ran on hosts or disk arrays.

Migrating data between two different vendors’ disk systems, for example, becomes possible, as does replicating data between unlike systems. (While host- and disk-based migration and replication alternatives have been available for years, these types of products are generally more expensive to run and/or manage because they are agent-intensive and proprietary, respectively.)

And that’s only the beginning. Storage virtualization enables a variety of other applications, including snapshots, data migration, provisioning, virtual tape library (VTL) applications, continuous data protection (CDP), encryption, serverless backup, etc.

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Running storage services in the network has many potential benefits, including simplified management (no more agent “pollution”), a reduction in hardware and software costs (e.g., in the case of serverless backup, users can drastically reduce the number of media servers needed), better storage utilization (capacity is pooled and provisioned as needed), and greater flexibility in deploying storage services (see figure).

Virtualization’s many homes

Storage virtualization can be implemented in hardware (e.g., on an intelligent switch or appliance) or in software. While adoption of these products has been slow to date, ESG believes EMC’s entry into the market and Cisco’s growing list of SANTap ISV partners will drive adoption of intelligent storage networking-in particular, intelligent switches-although widespread adoption is still a year or two away at best.

While ESG ultimately expects end users to adopt a mix of switch- and appliance-based implementations, intelligent switching platforms are currently center stage. It should be noted, however, that IBM reports more than 2,000 installations of its appliance-based SAN Volume Controller (SVC), making IBM the early leader in this nascent market. Also, start-ups FalconStor, MaXXan, StoreAge, and Troika Networks (recently acquired by QLogic) have been quietly pushing the technology for the past couple of years with moderate success.

Today, intelligent switch platforms are available from vendors such as Brocade, Cisco, MaXXan, and Sanrad. McData has pushed the launch of its Intelligent Fabric Module (IFM) to Q2 2006.


In terms of overall activity, Cisco continues to dominate the intelligent switch market. To date, MDS 9000 Series SANTap Service partners include Cloverleaf, CommVault, EMC Legato, FalconStor, Kashya, Topio, and XIOtech.

Cisco also supports EMC’s Invista virtualization platform (which Cisco expects to begin shipping soon), IBM’s SVC, and the Incipient Network Storage Platform. Applications for these platforms are built on top of Cisco’s Storage Service Module (SSM), which uses an intelligent storage application program (based on the Fabric Application Interface Standard, or FAIS) to interface with the applications.

Cisco’s SSM-supported applications are more tightly integrated into the MDS 9000 platform than SANTap-based applications; however, because it is easier for ISVs to write to, SANTap opens the MDS 9000 platform up to more applications and vendors. Cisco uses a blade architecture for both implementations.

Cisco refers to SSM-based applications as network-hosted applications and SANTap-based applications as network-assisted applications. To date, Cisco has seen the greatest traction with SANTap-based applications. But this could change significantly when EMC’s Invista platform ramps over the next few months. In its first release, Invista is expected to offer data movement functionality, most notably data migration.


Brocade’s SilkWorm Fabric Application Platform (SilkWorm Fabric AP) is also expected to support EMC’s Invista early next year.

Fujitsu Computer Systems recently began shipping its ETERNUS VS9000 storage virtualization software for the SilkWorm Fabric AP.

And at the Storage Networking World conference in October, Brocade announced its Tapestry Data Migration Manager (DMM) software for the SilkWorm Fabric AP. While DMM does not “virtualize,” it does enable users to migrate data between arrays without the use of other third-party software. While Brocade has plans to enable end users to run DMM and its existing multi-protocol software on the same switch, the software currently must run on separate switches.


McData’s IFM is a “hybrid” solution: It’s not a “blade” or an “appliance.” The company claims that IFM will give end users the management benefits of a blade-type architecture without the limitations of blade implementations (e.g., scalability and performance). McData’s platform is powered by chips developed by Aarohi.

McData claims that its platform, when it becomes available in Q2/Q3 2006, will provide 3x the performance of competitive products from Brocade and Cisco. Additionally, McData’s platform will work with the company’s existing switches (so no “rip-and-replace” conversion is necessary) and could conceivably work with switches from other vendors.

McData has publicly stated that it is working with EMC, and other partnerships are reportedly in the works.


MaXXan is one of the few remaining start-ups in the intelligent switch market. The company, which offers both appliance- and switch-based products, claims to have shipped approximately 300 units to more than 100 customers.

MaXXan’s architecture leverages network processors from the telecommunications industry in its MXV family of switches, which allows the company to easily add applications and scale its platforms as user demand dictates.

MXV switches currently support disaster-recovery applications and virtual tape library (VTL) functionality, and support for virtualization and encryption is expected in Q1 2006. On top of virtualization, the company is expected to layer a variety of services, including snapshots, replication, etc.

However, MaXXan expects the encryption feature, not virtualization, to be the immediate draw. ESG believes that by introducing this feature MaXXan can differentiate itself from intelligent switch vendors such as Brocade, Cisco, and McData.

Over the past year or so, storage security has risen to the top of IT administrators’ priority lists. While stand-alone security appliances are available from a variety of vendors, ESG believes that MaXXan’s approach provides additional benefits such as the ability to encrypt more data (up to 256 ports per appliance) without building a “farm” of security appliances.


Like MaXXan, Sanrad’s messaging is very different from the core switch providers. For one thing, the company focuses on iSCSI. Its V-Switch architecture is designed to help users create virtualized iSCSI SAN environments from which they can run a variety of storage services, including provisioning, snapshots, mirroring, replication, etc. The switches can also be used to bring IP-connected servers into Fibre Channel SAN environments. Sanrad’s V-Switches have been installed at more than 400 sites, according to the company.

Looking ahead

Intelligent switching has come a long way over the last few years, and ESG research indicates that early adopters have realized a number of benefits, including significant cost savings. In fact, on average, early adopters in an ESG survey said they were able to reduce annual storage hardware spending by 20%, storage software spending by 14%, and storage administration costs by 17%.

“Once we fully roll out our intelligent fabric and implement all the strategies that it will enable, we forecast that our storage hardware budget will decrease by 60% to 70% over the next two to three years,” said one survey respondent.

And one early adopter said he expected administrative costs to be about 75% less as a direct result of an intelligent switching implementation: “At our current growth rate, we calculated that we would need to triple our head count over the next three years. By adding an intelligent fabric, we believe we can maintain our existing head count.”

Although appliances have paved the way, ESG believes intelligent switches are the wave of the future. With vendors such as Brocade, Cisco, EMC, IBM, and McData pushing the technology, it’s a question of “when,” not “if,” end users will adopt it.

Heidi Biggar is an analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group (www.enterprisestrategy group.com).

This article was originally published on December 01, 2005