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Analyst: Cisco will shake up SAN market

A recent report by the Aberdeen Group found that the storage area network (SAN) market is about to be shaken up by Cisco Systems Inc.'s new multi-protocol approach to switching.

A recent report by the Aberdeen Group found that the storage area network market is about to be shaken up by Cisco Systems Inc.'s new multi-protocol approach to switching.

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Today storage area networks (SANs) primarily use the Fibre Channel protocol. Fibre Channel was an improvement when it first hit the market because it allowed transmission of data across distances as far as six miles. But Dan Tanner, the director of storage research at Boston-based Aberdeen Group and the report's author, said that Fibre Channel may soon have some company.

Fibre Channel is a specialized technology that makes SANs different from other company networks. It requires specially trained staff and specialized tools to manage it, both of which are expensive. And Tanner said there is less intelligence in Fibre Channel networks than in IP networks.

Brocade Communications Systems Inc., based in San Jose, Calif., dominates the Fibre Channel market, controlling a 95% market share.

Cisco had worked with Brocade up until this April, when it ended a joint development project and began competing head-to-head with the company. Just a few months later, Cisco announced its intention to buy San Jose, Calif.-based Andiamo Systems Inc. Andiamo has developed multi-protocol switches for storage networks that include Fibre Channel, but also include Internet protocol, and the native IP storage networking protocol, called the Internet protocol small computer system interface (iSCSI).

That move has the potential to change the dominance of Fibre Channel over storage networks, Tanner said.

Ed Chapman, senior director of Cisco's storage technology group, said that with the multi-protocol approach that Cisco uses in its MDS 9000 family of products, storage networks can become smarter and more scalable, much more like data communication networks.

While today most SANs are used to store data specific to a single application like an Oracle database, Chapman said that, using the iSCSI protocol, Cisco can extend SANs to more midrange applications. Cisco's product is also scalable, which can allow for larger SANs.

Cisco has also applied a virtual LAN approach to its storage area network. Many companies set up separate SANs for separate applications so one application doesn't eat up the space for another. Now with a virtual SAN, companies can have multiple virtual SANs on a single switch. Companies will have the same functionality as they would with multiple separate SANs, but on less physical infrastructure, Chapman said.

Tanner said that Cisco's approach adds more intelligence into the network so administrators can better understand what is occurring on the network. Chapman said this includes a trace route function that was unavailable on traditional Fibre Channel systems. With this, administrators can find out what route data is taking across the network. It enables administrators to better understand and build out their networks.

Another important benefit for companies is personnel costs. Tanner said that storage administrators have been able to pull in large salaries because their expertise is specific to Fibre Channel networks. With multi-protocol systems, and particularly those that are moving toward IP, less special expertise will be required.

Chapman said that Cisco has no intention to push the market toward IP. But both Tanner and Chapman agree that that IP will become an important SAN protocol. Cisco is not the only company to take this approach. Tanner points to Brocade's recent purchase of Rhapsody Networks Inc., an intelligent switching company, as evidence that even the Fibre Channel market leader is beginning to think differently.

What is important about the move to a multi-protocol environment, Tanner said, is that it allows businesses greater freedom in choosing how to run their SANs.

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