Sprint Puts Cisco to Test

Halfway through testing MDS 9000, Sprint says its SAN engineers have warmed up to Cisco

March 6, 2003

4 Min Read
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Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON) is about halfway through its rigorous testing cycle of Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) MDS 9000 Fibre Channel switches -- and so far, its lab engineers have found the Andiamo box holds its own.

"We've found nothing that sets the world on fire, but there's nothing that disqualifies it, either," says Charles Warren, director of Sprint's Service Technologies Lab, the communications company's testing organization for both internal and customer-facing IT technologies.

Sprint is evaluating the Cisco MDS 9000 switches for possible deployment in its own internal IT infrastructure, and it's also considering deploying them as the foundation for a managed storage services offering to its enterprise customers. The carrier is entering Phase 4 of its testing, which will continue for another six to eight weeks.

When Sprint began testing the MDS 9000 switches in December 2002, its SAN engineers weren't convinced that Cisco could match the reliability of other offerings in the market. Since then, though, they've warmed up to Cisco, Warren says.

"Our SAN folks initially viewed Cisco with some skepticism -- the attitude was, 'Cisco is a great networking company, but they don't do storage area networks,' " he says. "Now I'm seeing some softening of the hard position that we had when we went in."Currently, Sprint principally uses SAN switches from Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), along with some McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA) and Inrange Technologies Corp. (Nasdaq: INRG) equipment. "We have a very heterogeneous SAN environment, and we have no favorites," says a Sprint spokeswoman.

The company hasn't yet reached a decision about whether to deploy the Cisco MDS 9000. "Any decision to deploy will have to be backed by a very solid business case... It's not just a technology decision," Warren says.

Warren adds that he hasn't yet seen any pricing information from Cisco. "The stuff we've got, I don't know what it would sell for. The configuration we're using are all brand-new switches, but we're not paying anything for evaluation purposes."

In the next phase of its testing, Sprint will be using Veritas Software Corp.'s (Nasdaq: VRTS) software as a "management overlay" in the MDS 9000. By using the Veritas storage virtualization features, Sprint can more efficiently redeploy unused storage capacity, Warren says.

"We have probably overprovisioned storage in all our data centers," he says. "If you have a SAN in four different locations, you have storage capacity that is going unused in each of those... But if you can have those behave as a single logical SAN, you can now perhaps use the underutilized storage."Cisco, meanwhile, still won't say when the Veritas-enabled features will be available on the MDS 9000. Veritas has previously announced that it will port several of its products to the Andiamo platform, including SANPoint Control, which offers centralized management of heterogeneous SANs, Veritas Cluster Server, Veritas Foundation Suite, and NetBackup (see Veritas Supports Cisco MDS 9000).

In addition, Sprint will be replicating data over iSCSI using the MDS 9000's optional IP module. The carrier will send data between its facilities in Burlingame, Calif., and Kansas City, Mo., using iSCSI over a DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing) connection. According to Cisco, the eight-port MDS 9000 IP storage module, which supports both iSCSI and Fibre Channel over IP (FCIP) protocols, is expected to be available in the first half of 2003.

Sprint expects to wrap up its evaluation testing just as Cisco readies its initial entry into the Fibre Channel market. IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) is planning to ship MDS 9000 switches later this month, and Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) and Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) have announced their intentions to start selling the Cisco gear in a similar timeframe (see Cisco Gets Set, Cisco Makes SAN Software Friends, HDS Certifies Cisco MDS 9000, and IBM Tells Cisco: 'Let's Go!').

The generally positive feedback from Sprint matches the reaction Cisco is getting from others -- including Texas power company Reliant Energy -- that have taken early looks at the Andiamo switches (see Cisco Beta Site: 'We Love It!').

Robert Montague, analyst at RBC Capital Markets, says interviews with several enterprise users his team has contacted (unfortunately, he won't say who those end users are) indicate a welcome reception for the new Cisco switches. The Cisco Fibre Channel gear, he notes, offers features not offered by Brocade or McData, including Virtual SANs (VSANs) and the switched port analyzer (SPAN) feature. SPAN provides a real-time, out-of-band protocol analysis of the traffic between two ports in an MDS switch, while VSANs allow multiple virtual (logical) SANs to run on the same physical infrastructure (see Cisco's VSANs: Hype or Innovation?)."In aggregate, our sources believe Cisco's technology will be very competitive on a functional basis and voice excitement on the network management capabilities," writes Montague, in a note to investors yesterday.

RBC says Brocade and McData will have to counter Cisco's incursion "with scorched-earth pricing maneuvers that disrupt Cisco's initial attack and test the invader's conviction... Though duct tape and flashlights may not be in order, in our view, Brocade and McData investors are advised to prepare for hazardous duty as the conflict ensues."

Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

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