Switching storage

Cisco Systems Inc. is poised to launch a number of Fibre Channel-to-IP conversion switches that officials say will validate the storage-over-IP network model, preserve existing Fibre Channel relay investments, and deal a blow to the Fibre Channel switch industry.

Fibre Channel advocates argue that IP bandwidth limitations hinder IP performance, but the Cisco products will utilize the new and faster iSCSI standard which will be ratified in May, when the Cisco IP products are also set to arrive.

"IP is prevalent and low-cost," said Mark Cree, general manager of Cisco's storage router business unit. "And iSCSI will allow for an entire storage infrastructure [to travel] over any IP medium."

Fibre Channel switch technology has been criticized by companies such as San Jose, Calif.-based Nishan Systems Inc., whose products route storage data from Fibre to less expensive IP.

Like the Nishan devices, Cisco's IP products scale storage from Fibre to IP, but added technology from San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco's acquisition of NuSpeed Internet Systems Inc. will enable end-to-end IP storage networks. Beta versions of the Cisco products are already running Oracle Corp. database applications above the performance level of Fibre Channel, Cree said.

"Oracle is just one example. We will have a full set of partners, and anything that runs on SCSI will run on iSCSI. That will be a big surprise, that IP is a better medium than Fibre Channel," Cree said.

Some Fibre Channel customers are reconsidering their Fibre Channel investments, according to Ashok Kumar, an industry analyst at Menlo Park, Calif.-based U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray.

"The Fibre Channel industry has shrunk too far to be a major force again," Kumar said. "The next big wave of storage industry growth is likely going to be the deployment of IP-based storage." Only the arrival of a "killer app" will justify further Fibre Channel investment, Kumar said.

But others claimed that Fibre still has a secure place in the network. For example Wayne Rickard, the senior vice president and CTO of Dallas-based Gadzoox Networks Inc. and the chairman of the technical council for the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), said that Fibre Channel lays the foundation for a number of value propositions because of its capability of moving huge amounts of block data.

"Backup doesn't sound like the killer app. But you are not putting [Fibre Channel] in just to do backup, but also to add virtualization and add snapshot capability, which over time will continue to add value," Rickard said.

The IP camp praises Fibre Channel as a short-distance relay but wants to see companies replace Fibre Channel switches with IP ones, scaling out on iSCSI.

"It's a no-brainer," Cisco's Cree said. "iSCSI requires zero modification to the applications, and we can take a PC or server and make it think it's talking to a local disc that is really on the other side of the world."

Eric Goldfarb, CTO and CIO of Macmillan Publishing in Indianapolis, has been beta testing Nishan's Fibre-to-IP switches and said IP storage preserves his Fibre Channel investment, simplifies storage tasks for his staff, and keeps him from being locked in to one protocol.

"My [staff] wants to use technology, not learn it," Goldfarb said.

Analyst Kumar said SAN (storage area network)-only companies such as Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and Emulex Corp. will be hardest hit by an industrywide conversion to IP storage.

Jay Kidd, vice president of product marketing at San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade, said the company continues to see strong Fibre Channel sales but is hedging its bets by working with none other than Cisco on similar IP storage products.

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More about Bancorp Piper JaffrayBrocade CommunicationsBrocade Communications SystemsCiscoCommunications SystemsCreeEmulexGadzoox NetworksNishan SystemsNuSpeed Internet SystemsOracleStorage Networking Industry AssociationStorage Networks

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