Cisco Joins Ficon Fiesta

Vendor says IBM's Ficon data center transport protocol is key to enterprise SANs

April 28, 2004

4 Min Read
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Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) is the latest of several big SAN suppliers to tap the Ficon mainframe-to-storage transport protocol from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) to harvest enterprise customers.

Cisco today announced that IBM has qualified the MDS 9000 directors and fabric switches in its own labs, blessing Cisco's implementation of a series of features based on the Ficon protocol, which mimics Fibre Channel in speed and functionality but has specific links to IBM mainframe operating systems. As a result, IBM is going to resell Cisco's Ficon solutions to its mainframe customers (see IBM OKs Cisco Ficon Features).

Cisco's hardly the first switch vendor to announce Ficon support. Indeed, Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), Computer Network Technology Corp. (CNT) (Nasdaq: CMNT), and McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA) have already issued their own news of Ficon support and IBM qualification (see McData Supplies Kookmin, IBM OKs McData's Ficon CUP, CNT Extends SAN Management, and CNT Gets IBM Support).

Each of these vendors, particularly CNT and McData, hold their Ficon features dear and are ready to brag about their differentiators. Now they have Cisco to contend with, too.

For its part, Cisco's claiming to have the same level of Ficon support that CNT and McData enjoy. This includes IBM's approval in its Poughkeepsie, N.Y., lab -- a must for Ficon watchers. "It's got to be Poughkeepsie!" says Doug Ingraham, senior director of switching products at CNT. All three vendors also have Ficon Control Unit Port (CUP) management capabilities, which means the SAN director can be managed by the same IBM software that's used to manage the mainframe links to other storage gear. This is crucial to keeping Big Blue customers happy, the vendors say.Cisco and CNT also claim they can run Ficon directly over IP networks -- and Cisco, in a jab at McData, says it's the first fabric switch vendor to do this without using a separate channel extender. Currently, McData's switches don't feature integral Ficon-over-IP support, though McData director of strategic marketing Bob Williams says this feature is in the works and should be available by the middle of this year.

Does anyone really care about Ficon over IP? Yes, says Cisco product manager Tom Harrington, particularly for backup and remote connectivity in metro networks. He says the ability to offer IP transport for Ficon and Fibre Channel in its MDS 9000, without resorting to extra hardware, helped sell Cisco's solution to at least one customer, First American Corp.

Expect more Ficon announcements, as vendors catch on to the idea that the way to enterprise SAN customers' wallets is through their mainframe channels.

"If you are a switch vendor... having Ficon means you can can establish a'preferred' position with big customers, as they tend not to change mainframe architectures often," writes Rick Villars, VP of storage systems at research firm IDC in an email. What's more, since Ficon is limited to IBM environments, vendors like to develop Ficon gear because they don't face the same price challenges they do in the more competitive Fibre Channel market.

"Ficon is the new mainframe channel protocol," CNT's Ingraham says. As customers move away from islands of SANs, he notes, it's getting more important to include Ficon in the mix with IP and other protocols. CNT, he adds, is planning new Ficon announcements in the next couple of months.The director vendors aren't the only ones looking to Ficon these days. Software startup Corigin Ltd. is releasing a new Ficon-enabled version of its product, which provides interactive access to mainframe data while cutting down on mainframe processing (see Corigin). Previously, the vendor relied on APIs (application programming interfaces) from Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) to support its mainframe connectivity. The new package will open up its ability to run with controllers from IBM and EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC) as well.

Corigin execs say Ficon is key to the enterprise market, where IBM mainframes enjoy a vigorous business. "Over 60 percent of all data resides on mainframes," says Amnon Pressler, Corigin's CEO. "We use the SAN because the channel connection is faster for end users." And in a preponderance of shops, that channel connection is Ficon.

Mary Jander, Site Editor, Byte and Switch

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