Cisco Systems, the 800-pound gorilla of networking, said last week that it's jumping into the Fibre Channel storage area network arena with its own switches and directors. The move poses the first major challenge to Brocade Communications Systems and McData, which together claim about 86 per cent of the switch marketplace.
While Cisco's IP network installed base gives it a foot in the door of virtually every Fortune 1000 company, analysts and storage administrators said it still faces scrutiny as a newcomer to the storage space.
Cisco said that its Multilayer DataCenter Switch 9000 family of storage switches and directors, both with 1G or 2G bit/sec. data transfer rates, will be available in the fourth quarter. Prices will start at $US29,995.
Mario Mazzola, chief development officer at Cisco, said during a conference call that the company won't use its direct sales force to market the products. Instead, it will "leverage pragmatically strong partnerships and business arrangements with the storage solutions major players," he said.
But IT managers like Mike Karash said Cisco's new product line has to prove itself before it gets into their data centres. Karash, manager of technical services at insurance giant The Progressive Corp in Ohio, said he has already standardised on Brocade switches in his SAN, which he's currently re-engineering for better centralised management.
"We've been running a SAN here for about four years," he said. "We started out during the painful times [of storage networking] and are just finishing up re-engineering our infrastructure. There are only certain standardised vendors we'll let into the SAN."
Cisco acquired its switch technology when it bought 44 per cent of US-based Andiamo Systems in April 2001 for $54 million. Andiamo and Cisco wouldn't disclose any details of the product development until last week, when Cisco also said it's acquiring the remaining stock of Andiamo.
Cisco's contract with Andiamo states that it could pay as much as $2.5 billion for the remaining 56 per cent of Andiamo's stock, with the price depending on sales of the switches during a three-month period after the deal is closed. That buyout would close no later than July 2004, officials said.
Cisco's new line of products all run on the same management software. Versions include Fibre Channel, SCSI over IP, and Fibre Channel over IP ports. Cisco is using four distinct chassis, one of which lets it configure up to 48 ports on its switch product. The other three chassis are for directors -- fully redundant switches -- that have up to 256 ports on a single box. The 256-port Cisco model 9509 director can be stacked three to a rack for as many as 768 ports.
"That instantly makes it the largest switch in the marketplace," said Arun Taneja, an analyst at Enterprise Storage Group in Milford, Massachussets.
The only other vendor that offers a 256-port director is Inrange Technologies, which holds about 5 per cent of the Fibre Channel switch market, according to IDC.
Stephen Beer, director of product marketing at San Jose-based Brocade -- which commands 62 per cent of the switch market, according to IDC -- said Cisco's product line isn't a threat to established players. "There's a great difference between the delivery of loosely coupled packet data [on IP networks] and very tightly coupled . . . high-performance, block-level delivery," he said.
Yet analysts are applauding Cisco's choice of technology because of its multiprotocol design and single management platform. "They have created a very elegant design," Taneja said. "The product line is fully capable of multiprotocol, but the initial emphasis is 100 per cent Fibre Channel. That tells me they're going full-blast against Brocade and McData."
Gartner estimates that the Fibre Channel switch marketplace will grow from $1.2 billion this year to $4.3 billion in 2006.