Can Cisco Convince Storage Partners To Make the SAN Switch?

Cisco has had its eye on becoming a key player in storage for years. Now it may be taking its best step forward to win mindshare from storage integrators by offering rebates to those who become proficient in selling and supporting its MDS 9000 SAN switch.

Despite having a technological edge for well over a year, Cisco's MDS 9000 Series of multilayer SAN directors and fabric switches have given integrators little reason to consider them. That's because the Tier One providers of storage-area network gear have made it easier for VARs to specify SAN switches from Brocade Communications and McData. Both vendors are the leading providers of SAN fabric switches, though Cisco's MDS 9000 is regarded as a viable alternative.

Among other things, Cisco is the first to provide integrated iSCSI functionality into the line of switches, says Charles Tate, business development manager of IBM's systems and technology group. "Cisco has been a leader in the area of multiprotocol capabilities," Tate says.

"The MDS 9000 is a really good product," says Nancy Hurley, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

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By Cisco's own admission, it has been unable to give partners incentive to invest in training their engineers and sales personnel in its storage offerings, despite its position as the dominant supplier of network infrastructure. Though the company launched an effort last year to offer training and certification for the MDS9 000 multiprotocol SAN switches, Cisco thought it was impractical to foot the bill for the potential universe of 500 storage integrators, says Keith Zubchevich, Cisco's director of worldwide storage channels.

Instead, Cisco this week rolled out a program it calls Clear Advantage, in which the company will offer rebates to partners of key storage vendors, including IBM, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems and Network Appliance, who invest to become trained and certified to sell, deploy and support the MDS 9000.

"It's really our attempt to invest in the indirect, or the VAR channel, of our storage manufacturer partners, and to create MDS 9000 preference and awareness," Cisco's Kubchevich says.

For VARs and storage integrators who show revenue growth of 20 percent per quarter, those rebates could amount from a few percent to 10 percent, said Richard Wedel, chief marketing officer of Houston-based integrator Micro System Enterprises.

The problem, ESG's Hurley says, is that incentives to channel partners won't necessarily give their customers enough of a reason to make a switch, despite efforts from the vendor to meet with CIOs of some of its top customers.

"They're having problems penetrating installed bases because customers are not willing to switch out their existing environments," Hurley says.

Bill Colestock, senior director of Tallahassee, Fla.-based Mainline Information Systems' storage business unit, says with thousands of sales reps out in the field, Cisco will likely become a force to be reckoned with despite its current underdog status.

"They're going to cause a stir in the marketplace," Colestock says. But he says if Cisco decides to mandate that he staff a certain number of Cisco-certified engineers -- which it has done on the network side of the business -- he will be less likely to push Cisco switches.

"If that's where they're going, I'm not interested," Colestock says.

Micro System's Wedel believes Cisco has extensive clout with customers, and that many already have multiple vendors' switches in their storage environments. Moreover, he says as core networks and SANs converge, Cisco's MDS 9000 could become a strategic product.

"The two worlds -- the storage and infrastructure worlds -- are converging, and I think that's where Cisco is hedging its bets," Wedel says.

Mainline's Colestock doesn't believe such convergence is going to happen.

"The network folks have a totally different perspective than the IT staff," Colestock says. "With the network people, if I lose a packet, so what? To the IT people, losing data is not even in the conversation."

Nevertheless, with the emergence of new switches based on the Fibre Channel Industry Association's new 4-Gbps protocol, and many companies looking to get off the switches with just 1 Gbps or 2 Gbps throughput, Cisco may be moving in at a good time.

"Their timing is good," Colestock says, "because many customers are going to be making changes."