Cisco aims IP/Fibre Channel switch at mid-market

Fostering the proliferation of IP (Internet protocol) storage networks within enterprise workgroups and medium-size businesses, networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. on Tuesday unveiled its SN-5428 Storage Router.

Unlike less sophisticated Fibre-to-IP bridges, the 5428 is a full-blown Fibre Channel switch, according to Doug Ingram, senior manager of marketing for Cisco's storage technology group. The added functionality of Fibre switching in the 5428 gives mid-range data centers -- the product's target market -- the ability to network IP storage devices off DAS (direct attached storage) servers.

Ingram said the 5428 is a cost-effective way to expand workgroup storage outwards from a DAS server to a network of IP-based storage servers, essentially comprising an IP SAN (storage area network).

"[The 5428] enables you to bring in a whole set of servers that could never participate in a SAN before, bring them in cost-effectively using IP, and use the combination of technologies to make a much more holistic SAN than ever before," Ingram said.

With eight 1Gb or 2Gb Fibre Channel ports and two Gigabit Ethernet ports, the 5428 allows users to add external, networked Fibre Channel storage devices and non-Fibre storage devices running iSCSI.

An emerging protocol that is gaining industry momentum, iSCSI is a fast Ethernet technology that carries both block and file data. Heralded upon introduction last year as a Fibre Channel killer for its low cost and lack of complexity compared to Fibre, iSCSI will essentially grease the wheels of IP networks using it, according to those familiar with the technology.

Cisco's timing with the introduction of the 5428 puts the switch in circulation comfortably ahead of the market inflection point of iSCSI. And Cisco's message is clear, according to Steve Duplessie, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Storage Group Inc., in Milford, Mass.

"Cisco is saying, 'Even if you don't want iSCSI today, we offer you all the Fibre Channel performance at a lower cost and our iSCSI component readies you for the future, and oh, by the way, we're Cisco,'" Duplessie explained.

Cisco offers iSCSI drivers for storage servers running Windows 2000 and NT environments, Sun Solaris, HP-UX, IBM AIX, and a variety of Linux platforms, according to Ingram.

The 5428 will compete with other Fibre-to-IP storage technology from companies such as Fibre Channel switch vendor Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and IP switch company Nishan Systems Inc.

The Enterprise Storage Group's Duplessie said Cisco has a right to feel confident about the 5428's success.

"This product has all the makings of a massively successful product," Duplessie said. "A giant company -- Cisco -- finally understands that it can and should compete in the Fibre Channel space, making a market in iSCSI with a huge sales force to go to market.

However, Duplessie tempers his enthusiasm with regards to the ability of Cisco -- traditionally a networking company -- to walk and talk like a storage company.

"As far as we can see, Cisco corporate still does not speak 'storage,' and we will have to wait to see if they really bring this to market as aggressively as they should," Duplessie said.

Pricing for the Cisco SN-5428 starts at US$11,995, according to Cisco.

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