Storage Pipeline: Vendor Profile: Cisco Systems

Discover why the infrastructure company has switched gears, dropping its iSCSI plan in favor of Fibre Channel.

September 1, 2004

5 Min Read
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The reality is that even with all the hoopla over IP storage, FC remains the SAN technology of choice among most Fortune 500 enterprises, so Cisco bought some FC insurance with Andiamo. The move paid off quickly: Resellers were only fully qualified to sell Cisco's newly acquired MDS 9000 series FC switch products as of July 2003, yet Cisco captured double-digit market share in FC in just three quarters. Not bad for a newcomer.

Where does that leave iSCSI? The aftermath of Cisco's acquisition of IP storage switch-maker NuSpeed Internet Systems was the first sign of trouble. NuSpeed's platform was problematic, and iSCSI standards were late, so it never took off. Cisco cut loose the NuSpeed group in February of last year. Most recently, the company announced it would scrap plans to develop an iSCSI initiator, saying initiators were being developed by Microsoft and other OS vendors.

Bill Erdman, director of Cisco's DWSS (data center, wireless, storage and switching) technologies, admits the company's statements on storage might seem confusing or contradictory. But Cisco still believes economic models drive the long-term direction of storage, he says, and ultimately, that means Ethernet. FC is the norm today, he says.

Cisco now considers iSCSI as a way to connect outlying servers to an FC fabric. Erdman won't speculate further on the future of iSCSI, however, nor discuss any plans for renewing Cisco's iSCSI development efforts. But he admits that Cisco's storage strategy came from some hard-knock lessons in the preferences and requirements of a new kind of customer for Cisco: the data center storage pro.

SAN Switch MarketClick to Enlarge

"The data center customer is a different buyer from the person to whom Cisco typically sells in enterprise networking," Erdman says. This new customer's technology preferences are channel- rather than network-oriented, he says, and Cisco is considered a storage newbie. So the company is taking it slow. The long-term goal, Erdman says, is to wean storage managers from mainframe channel-centric strategies to IP network-based storage interconnects.

Cisco also has been showing more diplomacy with its FC SAN competitors; new partnerships with IBM, EMC and QLogic have helped boost Cisco's stake in storage. Cisco announced in July, for instance, that it was adding IBM's SVC (Storage Virtualization Controller) technology to a new caching service module on its high-end FC switch, a product given the lengthy name IBM TotalStorage SAN Volume Controller for the Cisco MDS 9000. The company is also working with QLogic to ensure switch interoperability between Cisco's core switches and QLogic's edge switches.

And Cisco is now a key contributor to the FC standards process. That's a big change, especially in the ANSI T-11 Committee, where the company had been viewed as the unofficial heckler of efforts by the Brocade Communications-dominated group. T-11 has ratified several proposals backed or submitted by Cisco, such as host-to-switch security and frame formats for VSAN (virtual SAN) technology, which are becoming part of the FC protocol suite.

Cisco also has made some efforts to go with the flow at SNIA (the Storage Networking Industry Association), endorsing SMI-S (the Storage Management Initiative Specification). The company added a native provider to its switches late last year, but Erdman says this wasn't 100 percent compliant with SNIA's version. He says the company has since focused its FC storage-management efforts on supporting the proprietary management framework applications most popular among its customers, such as Tivoli SAN Manager and Hewlett-Packard OpenView.

Cisco is focusing on building best-of-breed FC director-class switches. Innovations such as VSAN have helped establish mind share for Cisco's MDS 9000 line, and the company's support for IBM's SVC and other technologies has helped sell some IT departments on Cisco storage. Its SAN success has been in meeting ship dates and bringing intelligent traffic-engineering techniques and other innovations to market, Erdman says, and it doesn't rely on the Cisco label.The Cisco brand helps, though. That's what first attracted Mike Luter, CTO at the Cancer Therapy and Research Center in San Antonio, to Cisco's iSCSI-based 5420 and 5428 storage routers (from Cisco's purchase of NuSpeed). "ISCSI is an awesome platform," Luter says. "It delivered enormous cost advantages when we used it to link up storage across a metropolitan area network."

But iSCSI doesn't work for all the center's storage needs. "Exchange runs great over iSCSI, but Oracle Financials are a little sluggish, and our patient records and verification systems required a high-volume service," Luter says.

So the organization is adding 11 TB of EMC storage to expand beyond patient record systems. It bought Cisco's MDS 9000 SAN switches to build out the SAN. The new architecture supports the center's growing storage needs--each patient at the center generates about 400 files of approximately 100 MB, consisting of individual and fused image data.

"Cisco Fibre Channel switches were used to build a SAN to grow our storage pool, while Cisco iSCSI switches let us share it across a MAN that connects our clinic to a research center and with several area hospitals," Luter says. The center also runs Cisco's VSAN technology in its MDS 9000 switches to separate or combine data for security and accessibility reasons, much like a VLAN.

Cisco is hedging its bets by going with FC for now and keeping an eye toward iSCSI. Time will tell whether the company will drive the future of storage networking the way it did the development of IP networks.Jon William Toigo is a contributing editor to Storage Pipeline, CEO of storage consultancy Toigo Partners International, and founder and chairman of the Data Management Institute. Write to him at [email protected].

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