Cisco Seeks Intelligence

Unveils intelligent switch product and partners, though viable products could lag

March 11, 2005

4 Min Read
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Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has announced a new strategy for adding intelligent applications to its switches, but it looks like there's more flash than substance at this point (see Cisco Adds Intelligence).

Cisco unveiled its Storage Services Module (SSM), a 32-port card that plugs into its MDS 9000 switches to provide volume management, migration, replication, backup, and virtualization. It also revealed a roster of hardware and software partners that will build applications on the platform through Cisco's SANTap protocol, which links the SSM with third-party software and appliances.

Ciscos SSM replaces the company's previous approach of using different modules for different applications. Currently, IBM and Veritas software for the MDS 9000 runs on different Cisco cards.

Making every partner write to the same module is progress, according to analyst Arun Taneja of the Taneja Group. “My issue with Cisco has always been you need a separate hardware module with each application,” he says. “With IBM [SAN Volume Controller], you need a caching module; with Veritas, you need a services module. That doesn’t make sense. There’s no way I’m buying a $30,000 switch and have to buy separate modules to run each application. This way makes more sense.”

Cisco’s major partners so far are EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), and Veritas Software Corp. (Nasdaq: VRTS). EMC will use the SSM in its Storage Router, which is due around midyear (see EMC Takes Storage Router for a Spin). An IBM spokeswoman says her company will use SSM for business continuity applications at first. (Interestingly, IBM's SAN Volume Controller, which works with the MDS 9000, remains untouched by SANTap.) Veritas already ports its Storage Foundation for Networks virtualization software to Cisco hardware, but would not specify how it will use the SSM (see Veritas, Cisco Ship Switch App).Others pledging SSM allegiance include:

An impressive group. But a lot of Cisco's announcement seems premature. Cisco senior product manager Rajeev Bhardwaj says he doesn’t expect partners to offer applications built on SSM until around mid year. Also, Cisco jumped the gun by claiming software vendors may write to the module using an API based on the Fabric Application Interface Standard (FAIS). That standard is still on the drawing board and won't be ready until next year.

Then there are implementation concerns. For instance, how will partners support Cisco’s multipath agents for high availability? At least two industry sources say the issue is a concern, since failing to integrate effectively with the multipath capability could affect a range of applications.

Analyst David Freund of Illuminata Inc. takes this view. “Single points of failure are a big issue in data centers,” he says. “In this case we’re talking about an I/O path which could stop business. That’s vital. Any customer is going to need to know that. Does my combination of A, B, Q, and X all support that? Do they all have the same notion of what multipath means, and can they play nice together in the same SAN box, pun intended?”

None of this has deterred Cisco from trying to get a jump on the intelligent switch race, where momentum is starting to build. Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) is building intelligent support on blades to run on its SilkWorm Multiprotocol Router (see Brocade Releases Multipro Router). The vendor says it is working with intelligent software startup Incipient Inc. and will announce other partners this year. EMC has also said it expects Brocade to be a partner when its virtualization appliance launches.McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA) won’t put intelligence in its switches until early 2006. This is in part because McData’s switched from a blade approach to an appliance that plugs into its director ports. McData’s director of storage platform initiatives Mark Henderson says large customers wanted to separate core switches from virtualization, and he claims the integrated blades tie up director slots and take away processing power.

Cisco's biggest competition right now comes from several startups that have taken similar approaches to integrating intelligent functions with switches. The list now includes Maranti Networks Inc., MaXXan Systems Inc., and Troika Networks Inc.

Example: Troika has adapted its product, a multiport appliance built to speed up the performance of storage applications, with software from StoreAge Networking Technologies Ltd. on virtual servers from VMware Inc.

But even though Cisco may be early to the party, its announcement has generated fresh speculation about the possibilities of adding intelligent functions to switches. “This starts the clock running,” says Illuminata's Freund. “It shows the window is not limitless, and Brocade and McData will have to move quickly. This helps Cisco, particularly if they really have this ecosystem of players.”

— Dave Raffo, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch0

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