Cisco Intros Its First Pay-as-you-grow SAN Switch


Cisco is looking to stake its claim in the small to midsize business SAN space with Monday's introduction of a new Fibre Channel SAN switch which allows businesses to pay for extra ports as needed. In the process the company is stepping up its competition with arch-rival Brocade Communications Systems and technology partner and possible acquisition target QLogic..

Customers can order the company's new MDS 9124 Multilayer Fabric Switch with as few as eight ports, and add an additional eight or 16 ports as needed by paying for the extra license cost, said Rajeev Bhardwaj, director of product management for Cisco's Data Center Business Unit.

It is also the company's first Fibre Channel switch with a 4-Gbit-per-second interface, bringing it directly in competition with market leader Brocade.

The new switch is aimed squarely at companies with up to 1,500 employees, Bhardwaj said. Such customers typically have less than 10 Tbytes of data capacity, and usually have a single data center.

"For commercial customers, such things as security, availability and flexibility for future growth are just as important as for enterprise customers," Bhardwaj said. "But the challenge has been that existing switches fall short of what commercial customers need. [Existing switches] don't have the expandability and scalability."

Cisco is taking a very good approach to the entry-level Fibre Channel switch market, said Merrill Likes, president of UpTime, an Edmond, Okla.-based solution provider.

"This gives customers flexibility so they don't have to forklift in a new switch," Likes said. "We can go in with a switch that lets a company grow. This approach is much better than having to buy 24 ports to begin with."

With the MDS 9124, Cisco is finally catching up with other storage vendors which offer a scalable Fibre Channel switch solution, a solution pioneered by McData, said Mark Teter, CTO of Advanced Systems Group, a Denver-based solution provider.

"It makes perfect sense," Teter said. "It makes SANs more economical. And it's an interesting move by Cisco, which has not been in the SAN switch business very long. Cisco is clearly offering an SMB switch solution to round off their product offerings."

McData, which is being acquired by Brocade in a deal expected to close early next year, offers several models of Fibre Channel switches with pay-to-grow upgradeability. They range from the Sphereon 4400, a half-width switch which starts at eight ports and can be upgraded to 12 ports or 16 ports, to the Sphereon 4700, which scales from 16 ports to 32 ports in eight-port increments.

Another vendor, QLogic, offers the 10-port SANbox Express 1400 Fibre Channel switch. Two 1400s can be stacked together in 1U of rackmount space for larger configurations. The company also offers the SANbox 5600, which starts with eight ports and can be expanded to up to 96 ports in four-port increments, and the lower-cost SANbox 5200, which expands from eight ports to 16 ports in four-port increments.

The flexibility of expanding port count is a good idea, and is typically less-expensive for smaller customers than a traditional Fibre Channel switch, Likes said.

"However, there has to be a point where you lose on scalability compared to a larger switch," Likes said. "At the low-end, it's pure economics. But you need to compare price for other vendors' 8-port, 16-port, and 24-port switches to the pay-as-you-grow switches from Cisco."
Cisco's new MDS 9124 will have another impact on the channel: silencing some of the rumors that Cisco is looking to acquire QLogic in order to improve its competitiveness against the new upcoming Brocade/McData combination.

With the MDS 9124 there's no need for Cisco to buy QLogic, said Mike Fanelli, president of TreTempo, a Dallas-based solution provider.

"Why should they now?" Fanelli said. "The have the product. If they were going to buy QLogic, they would've done it before they brought out the new switch."

The MDS 9124 fits a 1U rackmount space, and can be deployed either as part of a standalone SAN for s specific purpose such as e-mail, or at the edge of a SAN in order to consolidate storage devices in remote offices, or as part of a wide-area network (WAN) for disaster recovery purposes, Bhardwaj said.

For smaller businesses, the switch can be installed in three steps, including configuring the IP address, using a browser to connect to the switch, and launching a quick configuration wizard, Bhardwaj said. The switch then auto-discovers all storage elements on a SAN and sets up the appropriate connections, he said.

The switch also comes with Cisco's SAN-OS software, which offers such security elements as an audit trail to show all changes in the SAN, securing of passwords on an external server, and hardware-enforced zoning, he said.

Cisco sells the bulk of its Fibre Channel switches through system and storage vendors such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, EMC and Network Appliances which in turn sell them through their direct and indirect sales channels.

The new switches, which are scheduled to ship in December at an as-yet undetermined price, come with Cisco's channel outreach programs. This includes a newsletter, up to two hours of training for solution providers' account managers and up to one day for systems engineers, backend rebates, low-cost demo units, and information about how to explain SANs to customers, Chitre said.