The Cisco Hammer

The Cisco Hammer Looks like Big C could pound into the Fibre Channel market with a fury. But there are some X factors

December 6, 2002

3 Min Read
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It turns out Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) has been keeping a tight lid on its secret weapons as it stages its first attack on the Fibre Channel market.

We got a sneak preview of Cisco's MDS 9509 director-class Fibre Channel switch, courtesy of Reliant Energy, a Houston-based energy company (see Cisco Beta Site: 'We Love It!').

Reliant's networking engineers sang the praises of the Cisco product, which is supposedly still on track to ship before the end of 2002. "I personally think Cisco is going to change the face of SAN switching," says Barry Brazil, enterprise SAN architect at Reliant. [Ed. note: Gee, kinda like Michael Jackson!]

Normally, one finds this kind of messianic enthusiasm among, say, Scientologists. It's not every day you hear someone so jazzed about a SAN switch.

To be sure, Reliant is just one count 'em, one – beta customer. Cisco claims it's delivered more than 70 MDS 9500 switches to partners and 12 beta sites, but for now Reliant is the only one we've managed to hunt down.As a beta site, though, Reliant hasn't yet paid for the product. Moreover, Cisco has not yet announced its official pricing... which, if history is any guide, will not exactly be a bargain. Also, Reliant's particular SAN environment appears to have made it an especially good candidate for the collapsed-fabric capabilities of the MDS 9509.

Another caveat: It's not certain when Cisco will really start ramping production of its Fibre Channel switches. A Cisco spokesman says the MDS 9509 will start shipping in "limited quantities" before the end of this month. But some of its potential partners are unsure about Cisco's next move.

"As an overall industry, we're still trying to look beyond Cisco's announcement at what is going on behind the scenes," says Pierre Cousin, VP and general manager of Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek)'s (NYSE: STK) storage networking business group. "There's still a lot of debate about when the products will be available. Depending on who you talk to, it's Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4 of next year."

And there are other X factors that may complicate Cisco's go-to-market ability. Cisco reportedly has, today, a fully functional virtualization blade running the entire suite of Veritas Software Corp. (Nasdaq: VRTS) software for the MDS 9500. It's also said to be working with Network Appliance Inc. (Nasdaq: NTAP) to develop a NAS head-end blade for the switch. The scuttlebutt is that Cisco is sitting on these fancier features because it doesn't want to anger the OEMs it needs to distribute its switches – at least, for now (see Cisco to Slot In NetApp? and Cisco Ducks the Veritas Question).

But back to the main point, which is that Reliant's Brazil says he's considering moving his entire SAN over to Cisco if it continues to deliver. Pretty amazing, for a product that isn't even shipping yet. [Ed. note: After the publication of this article, Reliant officials contacted Byte and Switch to emphasize that the company has made no purchasing decisions yet regarding the MDS 9509.]If the MDS 9500 lives up to Reliant's exuberant praise, it may not be the happiest of New Years for the two biggest Fibre Channel incumbents – Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) and McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA).

Brocade, in particular, is not in the best shape to defend itself against the Cisco machine. It delivered Wall Street an extremely unpleasant shock when it forecast first-quarter 2003 revenues to be as much as 20 percent lower than previously expected. It also laid off around 12 percent of its employees; and several top executives – including president and COO Mike Byrd – quit. Brocade's stock has now hit a 52-week low, closing at $4.81 yesterday (see Market Spanks Brocade Hard, Brocade Cleans House, Brocade Purges Top Ranks, and Brocade Swings Hatchet).

Keep your eyes peeled, folks. The Cisco hammer is about to fall. The only question is how hard it will pound.

— Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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