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Cisco Enters the Storage Minefield

So Cisco Systems is making another attempt to muscle its way into the storage market. This time, the San Jose, Calif., company isn't relying on a technology joint venture similar to the one they forged (and failed) with Brocade Communications Systems.

No, this time Cisco is relying on what helped make them the IP networking king of the technology world: acquisitions. Last month, the company announced it was acquiring Andiamo, a unit that Cisco had already been funding, according to analysts. Come the end of this year, Cisco is expected to start shipping its MDS 9000 series of Fibre Channel switches. The series includes two products, the 9500 Series Multilayer Director and the 9216 Multilayer Fabric switch.

Okay, so this time the products are real and not just some dubious alliance inked with a company whose main interest is to hold on to its Fibre Channel, market-share leader status. The 9500 director features a 1.4 terabyte, non-blocking cross bar and will support 1 and 2 GB/S Fibre Channel modules; it can scale up to 256 fibre channel ports in a single chassis. The 9216 is aimed at the small to midsize business markets, supporting 48 FC ports in its first release, according to John Webster, an analyst as Data Mobility Group.

Webster also asserts that Cisco has packed in a few features that make the products more potent. For instance, the MDS fabrics can be logically divided into Virtual SANs, consisting of user-defined groupings of host bus adapters. "Users can tailor VSANs to specific applications by endowing each with variable performance, availability, and security attributes," Webster says.

There is no doubt that Cisco has a hefty product. But what is not clear to most in the industry is how they are going to deliver it in a space that is an interoperability minefield. Analysts say Cisco has not done any testing with other storage vendors. There are still some problems with putting a Brocade switch in the same SAN as with a McData switch. "But, at least those issues are known," says Webster. Not to mention, Brocade and McData already have a strong installed base there. Just this week, Cisco CEO John Chambers stated at the Gartner Symposium Itxpo that his company has a 50/50 chance of becoming the number one player in the storage networking market. "I wouldn't bet against us on this," he said. "I've got my best engineering team on this."

But analysts want some questions answered first. Giga analyst Anders Lofgren wonders: What is Cisco's distribution plan? Webster asks: Who are Cisco's channel partners in this storage move? And with standards already built around Brocade and McData switches, how do you add Cisco products into the mix?

Cisco likes to say that Fibre Channel is just another network. But others disagree, saying that expertise in IP networking does not automatically translate into expertise in fibre channel interconnects. "They still need to prove that," states Webster.

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