The new kid jumps in

Can Cisco Systems, a relatively new entry in the networked storage market, give the likes of Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Inrange Technologies Corp., and McData Corp. a run for their money in the strategic fabric switching arena? Recent news indicates that this is exactly what Cisco has in mind.

But let's recap. With a barrage of announcements on Aug. 20, Cisco made two points clear. First, the company will proceed with the acquisition of technology startup Andiamo Systems Inc. What's more important from a storage perspective is the second point: By year's end, Cisco will put on the market a new line of storage switches, including director-class and fabric units, thereby placing the company in open competition with switch vendors such as Brocade and McData. The two points are related because the new line, called MDS 9000, is the creation of Andiamo engineering.

We'll leave the details of this complex acquisition to the financial analysts. However, the MDS 9000 line does create an interesting stir in the storage industry.

Cisco's new switches target the large SAN market, promising unbiased support for Fibre Channel, iSCSI, and FCIP (Fibre Channel over IP) protocols. No surprises there. How about a compact, modular structure that can be shared across director and fabric switches? For storage managers, this means that the same spare module can replace a faulty one on either switch model and is a reassurance that all MDS 9000 products speak the same language.

Will support for VSANs (virtual SANs) -- essentially logically separated SANs on the same fabric -- and terabit capacity focus the attention of customers on the Cisco MDS line? How about easier integration with existing WANs and MANs (metropolitan area networks)?

It's probably too early to say, but let's note that Cisco is also promising storage management software vendors that the MDS 9000 line will be an open book for their applications and is reassuring storage device vendors with a similar pledge.

At the moment, the partnership between Cisco and major vendors, including Adaptec, BMC Software, EMC, Emulex, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, Tivoli, StorageNetworks, and Veritas, boils down to verifying interoperability between the MDS 9000 line and their own solutions.

But Cisco officials candidly estimate that the MDS 9000 line will have higher profit margins than Cisco is used to. We don't remember hearing a similar statement from other switch vendors, which could give Cisco the added edge of more bargaining power than its competitors and could open the door for more intriguing partnerships.

Regardless of how much of a share Cisco will carve in the switch market, the MDS 9000 will force vendors to take a hard look at their solutions, possibly lowering prices or beefing up features. Either way, the storage industry should get ready for a new ball game next year.

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