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Cisco embraces rival networking standard

The networking company is supporting a previously shunned networking standard in an effort to tap into a growing part of the storage market, the company plans to announce Tuesday.

Cisco Systems has begun supporting a previously shunned networking standard in an effort to tap into a growing part of the storage market, the company plans to announce Tuesday.

Cisco has long supported networks based on the Internet Protocol (IP), the standard that allows packets of information to be routed from one computer on the Internet to another. But a newer standard called Fibre Channel has grown up in the more specialized market connecting computers and storage systems.

Cisco launched into this so-called storage area networking (SAN) market on the back of a technology called iSCSI, which the company was helping to develop. iSCSI makes a storage system that's connected to a server by an IP network appear just like a storage system directly attached to the server.

But iSCSI is slower than Fibre Channel, not as well established and not even yet a formal standard, so Cisco's strategy embraces Fibre Channel while hoping to steer people toward iSCSI.

"In the long term, the storage network will go to IP and iSCSI, but in the short term we have to embrace what's already there," said Doug Ingraham senior manager of marketing for Cisco's storage technology group. "Fibre Channel is a technology today that has advantages that can't be overlooked."

Cisco on Tuesday will announce the SN 5428, a product that can shuttle information among as many as eight devices connected by Fibre Channel and two connected by iSCSI. The $11,995 devise follows the conventions of Fibre Channel networking while bridging to iSCSI realm as well.

Cisco's presence alters the storage networking landscape. Brocade Communications currently is the top dog of the Fibre Channel storage networking realm, but Cisco has more overall market power and is relying on one of Brocade's rivals, QLogic, to provide it with the Fibre Channel networking chip.

Cisco's previous storage networking product, the SN 5420 introduced in October 2001, bridges to Fibre Channel networks but doesn't have the ability to be the nucleus of a Fibre Channel network.

Eight Fibre Channel ports, while useful in some applications, is a low-end product compared with 32-port, 64-port and 128-port products from Brocade and high-end competitors such as Inrange and McData.

Cisco may have bowed to the market reality of Fibre Channel, but it's still a fan of iSCSI. Using iSCSI is much cheaper than using Fibre Channel, Ingraham said, and in some applications perfectly adequate.

For example, he said, iSCSI can support thousands of e-mail accounts using Microsoft Exchange or dozens of users tapping into Microsoft SQL Server database software. And that's with Ethernet IP networks transferring data at 100 megabits per second; the SN 5428 iSCSI ports work 10 times faster at 1 gigabit per second.

Cisco is aiming the product at small businesses with up to 500 employees or at larger corporations with branch offices.

The industry group working on iSCSI has finished the technical details of the specification, but it can't be finalized until an intellectual property issue with Lucent is resolved, Ingraham said. The specification should be done by late summer or fall, a few months' delay over what the group had hoped earlier.