Cisco, Lucent jump into storage networking

Sending data between computers and storage systems has been a job handled by few companies, but that's changing as new technology lets networking giants get into the act.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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4 min read
Sending data between computers and storage systems has been a job handled by a few small, highly specialized companies, but that's changing as new technology allows networking giants such as Cisco Systems to get into the act.

Storage systems once were tightly coupled with the servers that needed the data, but in recent years a storage-specific networking standard called Fibre Channel has allowed companies to split off storage systems into stand-alone islands. Now, however, the much more ordinary standard that underlies Internet communications is arriving, putting pressure on Fibre Channel specialists such as Brocade Communications Systems.

One of the biggest signs of this change was the arrival Monday of networking powerhouse Cisco, a company with years of IP (Internet protocol) experience. Cisco announced a $27,000 networking product that enables storage products designed for Fibre Channel networks to connect to servers that communicate with ordinary IP network equipment.

The arrival of IP-based storage networking technology puts tremendous pressure on Fibre Channel companies, said The Yankee Group analyst William Hurley. "It raises the competitive bar to a level the Fibre Channel community is only beginning to understand," he said.

In these economically difficult times, smaller companies aren't able to raise funding to help them compete with bigger, established competitors, Hurley added.

Compounding the threat to Fibre Channel companies is Murray Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies, another networking giant. It announced Monday a high-speed switch costing between $35,000 and $55,000 that will send Fibre Channel data over long distances by temporarily converting it to IP messages.

The news is arriving at the Storage Networking World conference in Palm Desert, Calif. But traditional Fibre Channel players also are moving ahead with their technologies.

San Jose, Calif.-based Brocade, the top seller of switches that shuttle Fibre Channel data traffic between servers and storage devices, announced a major expansion of its high-end switch line. As previously reported, the company announced 64-port and 128-port versions of the SilkWorm 12000 switch. In the fourth quarter, an upgrade will let consumers use the brand-new 2-gigabit-per-second version of Fibre Channel.

Brocade, though, is hedging its bets. The IP12000 currently supports Fibre Channel, and later it will support IP in some fashion. Later this year, the company will describe how. Just as significantly, Brocade is in a partnership with Cisco to provide its expertise to a future high-end Cisco switch that, like Lucent's product, will join Fibre Channel networks to larger IP networks.

Hurley, though, is skeptical. The partnership with Cisco may buy Brocade time, and some aspects of Brocade's switch adapt well to IP, he said. But Cisco isn't likely to end its storage networking plans there. "Frankly, Cisco is their biggest partner and their biggest competitor," he said.

A growing market
Cisco and Lucent were attracted to the booming storage market by the big dollars being spent by companies trying to find ways to keep storage costs from ballooning out of control. With companies buying twice as much disk storage space each year, the storage market looks like the land of plenty compared with the grim landscape that currently prevails in networking.

While Fibre Channel companies struggle to stay above water, Internet-based storage companies such as LeftHand Networks have managed to wring money out of investors during a notoriously tight capital market. LeftHand plans to announce Tuesday it has raised $10 million from Boulder Ventures, Sequel Ventures and Vista Ventures for its technology that lets storage systems connected to IP networks synchronize with each other, letting companies mirror data across numerous different locations.

Meta Group says users should be wary of the early iSCSI storage implementations from both IBM and Cisco, because the technology suffers from numerous shortcomings.

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The company that has probably profited most from the storage market is EMC, which sells refrigerator-size systems filled with hard disks and software to make the products useful. EMC, one of the earlier adopters of Fibre Channel, also is welcoming the arrival of other ways to connect its storage systems.

Server companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Compaq Computer have envied EMC's market share and profits, following EMC into the high-end disk array business. But it's been a difficult struggle to dislodge EMC, which has won fierce customer loyalty despite its high prices.

Cisco acknowledges it may face a similar struggle displacing storage specialists as it enters the storage networking market.

"That's one of the reasons we acquired NuSpeed--to acquire talent rather than build from scratch," Mark Cree, general manager of Cisco's storage router business, said at a news conference at the trade show. Monday's new product, Cisco's SN5420, is the product that start-up NuSpeed was working on when Cisco bought the company for $450 million in July.

The SN5420 uses a protocol called iSCSI that fools a server into thinking it's communicating with its own hard disk when it is in fact communicating with a storage system located elsewhere on an IP network. IBM and Cisco began work on iSCSI more than a year ago, and the NuSpeed products use the standard.

IBM already has released its first product using the iSCSI technology, even though the standard isn't final. That last step in standardization isn't expected to become final until August at the earliest and the end of the year at the latest, Cree said.

Just as good?
One problem with IP-based storage is that it takes a lot of CPU power to encode and decode transmissions, taxing servers. With Fibre Channel, by comparison, dedicated chips handle this grunt work.

But special-purpose network cards with software or chips to handle IP processing remove this bottleneck, Cree said.

And with 1-gigabit-per-second Ethernet technology in use, IP just about catches up, running at 85 percent the speed of Fibre Channel transmissions on local connections, Cree said.

Cisco announced it's letting companies such as those that build network cards use its iSCSI software for free, part of the company's effort to encourage adoption of the technology as quickly as possible.