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Cisco takes storage to branch offices

New product lets workers access files over company network at speeds equivalent to colleagues just down the hall from the data center.

Cisco Systems is moving network storage to the branch office.

The company on Tuesday announced a new series of products based on technology it acquired from a start-up called Actona. Until now, Cisco has aimed its storage-area networking products at data centers, using technology it acquired in 2002 from storage switch maker Andiamo. But now, with the new Actona gear, it's expanding its storage portfolio to branch offices.

Cisco announced its $82 million acquisition of Actona in June and closed the deal in August.

The new product, called the File Engine Series, is a hardware appliance that uses software based on wide-area file services (WAFS) technology. This technology centralizes company data in file servers located at a main data center. Users can then access files over the network using the WAFS-enabled File Engine at speeds equivalent to colleagues who are sitting down the hall from the data center, said George Kurian, vice president and general manager of the caching services business unit at Cisco.

Companies with several branch offices face problems when it comes to storing important data files. While storing data locally provides the best performance for accessing those documents, it's expensive to maintain at every branch office.

A typical file storage package, which includes local tape drives and remote IT staff, can cost between $15,000 and $20,000 per year per branch office, Kurian said. The Cisco product, which uses the remote servers, costs roughly $5,000 to $7,000 per year per branch office.

"The WAFS technology makes it easier for IT managers to consolidate data storage at all their branch offices to the central data center," Kurian said. "We allow them to remove hundreds of devices, but still maintain high levels of performance. Files accessed over the network look like they are being delivered by a local device."

But centralizing storage can cause major latency issues. Data transmitted over a wide-area network can have a round-trip latent period of between 25 milliseconds and 200 milliseconds. On a local-area network, round-trip latency could be less than 1 millisecond, or even shorter.

Actona, and several other companies such as DiskSites, Tacit Networks and Riverbed Technology aim to overcome this issue through a combination of techniques including data compression, remote data caching, and protocol and bandwidth optimization.

The Cisco File Engine is currently available and has a list price of $12,000, which includes a license to support up to 50 branch office users. Additional license packs for 50 users are priced at $4,500.