Cisco Salvo in 4-Gig FC

Bulks up fabric switch with 4-gig FC and enterprise capabilities to undercut Brocade

November 21, 2006

4 Min Read
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Cisco finally has a 4-Gbit/s Fibre Channel fabric switch of its own.

Cisco today launched the MDS 9124, a 4-gig switch that scales from 8 to 24 ports. Its first 4-gig switch came out around a year ago, but that was through an OEM deal with QLogic. And the vendor has put most of its emphasis on larger directors since entering the Fibre Channel SAN market in 2003.

The MDS 9124 is Cisco's most serious attempt at loosening Brocade's grip on the fabric switch market, and comes as Brocade is looking to close a $713 million acquisition of McData. (See Brocade's Costly Victory and Brocade Bags McData For $713M.) That deal will leave Brocade and Cisco to battle for the storage switch market. Cisco says its storage system partners will begin selling the MDS 9124 in December.

Rajeev Bhardwaj, director of product management for Cisco's data center business unit, says the MDS 9124 is aimed at what Cisco calls commercial customers, as opposed to the enterprise customers that use its directors. Cisco defines commercial customers as organizations with fewer than 1,500 employees, less than 10 Tbytes of storage, and a single data center.

"The Fibre Channel switch market is going through a fundamental change," Bhardwaj says. "Trends are starting to emerge. Security and flexibility to grow in the future are becoming as important to commercial customers as to enterprise customers."Cisco's new switch competes with Brocade's Silkworm 4100 and Silkworm 200E, as well as McData's Sphereon 4700 and 4400 switches. The Silkworm 4100 and Spheron 4700 scale from 16 to 32 ports, and the entry-level SilkWorm 200E and Sphereon 4000 are available as 8- or 16-port switches.

The MDS 9124 is built on a new system-on-a-chip architecture and uses the same operating system as Cisco's directors. That enables it to handle VSAN, which Cisco believes will be a big competitive advantage over other fabric switches.

VSANs let users put more than one SAN on a switch and give each SAN its own services and policies. They could use different SANs for separate applications such as email, databases, or backups.

While Cisco trumpets these features on a fabric switch, others might argue they have far more value in the enterprise -- and only with other Cisco switches. That means Brocade or McData customers could not take advantage of VSANs without swapping out their current switches for Cisco gear.

The MDS 9124 includes security features such as audit trails, password management on an external server, hardware-enforced zoning, and the ability to lock down physical switch ports to control access. It includes redundant, hot-swappable power supplies and has line-rate performance on each port, which means there is no oversubscription as on Cisco directors.While these features were missing from earlier Cisco fabric switches, they are common to its competitors' switches. Bhardwaj says Cisco will be price competitive by bundling all the features with the switches instead of charging separate license fees. While Cisco's storage system partners will set the price, Bhardwaj says he expects the MDS 9124 to go for about $7,000 to $8,000 for 16 ports.

"While Cisco has had small Fibre Channel switches in the past, including those based on QLogic technology, the 9124 is based on Cisco technology -- hardware, firmware, and software," says analyst Greg Schulz of The StorageIO Group. "This indicates that Cisco is serious about competing in Fibre Channel spaces traditionally dominated by Brocade."

Although Cisco took the lead in Fibre Channel director revenue in the second quarter of this year, according to the Dell'Oro Group market research firm, Brocade still maintains a huge edge in fabric switch revenue over Cisco. (See Cisco's First in Directors, Dell'Oro Says.) According to A.G. Edwards estimates, Brocade has around 65 percent of the fabric switch market, compared to around 10 percent for Cisco.

Brocade was first out the door with 4-Gbit/s switches more than two years ago, and analysts claim that gave it a boost over the past year. Cisco downplayed the significance of the 4-gig market even as it brought out the MDS 9020 through QLogic a year ago. Cisco delivered its first 4-gig director, the MDS 9513, in April. (See Cisco Goes 4-Gig & Big and 4-Gig Fans Fawn.)

"Cisco is usually not first, but that doesn't mean theyre late," says analyst Steve Schuchart of Current Analysis. "They waited until the market was mature, which Cisco usually does, until they could sell more of these 4-gig switches."Dell, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Network Appliance, Sun Microsystems, and Xiotech plan to qualify and sell the MDS 9124, according to Cisco.

— Dave Raffo, News Editor, Byte and Switch

  • A.G. Edwards

  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)

  • Current Analysis

  • Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL)

  • Dell'Oro Group

  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • Hitachi Data Systems (HDS)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA)

  • Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP)

  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW)

  • The StorageIO Group

  • Xiotech Corp.

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