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Cisco readies leap into storage management

Posted: 04 Sep 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cisco systems? asic? network? hard-disk drive? andiamo systems?

Cisco Systems Inc. will jump into one of the most contentious battles in storage networking next year when it launches its first products for a market segment called virtualization. Leveraging a new data path ASIC from its recently created Andiamo Systems unit, Cisco will compete with a host of array, server, and switch vendors vying to define how to manage networked pools of HDDs.

Virtualization, a term often misused, provides an abstracted, logical view of physical arrays of drives on a network so that users can automate the job of splitting tasks across different networks and drive arrays, even if they come from multiple vendors.

Different vendors understand virtualization differently, though, which helps explain the fragmented state of the market: Nearly every storage vendor is designing virtualization products that run on their respective hardware, but each vendor is approaching it differently.

Cisco, however, is clear on where it wants to go with virtualization: It intends to turn its recently announced MDS 9000 Fibre Channel storage switch into a "services platform" by releasing an adapter card with data path ASIC and third-party applications in 1H of 2003.

Cisco's virtualization business plan will pit it head-to-head with Brocade Communications Systems Inc. Brocade is cultivating its own virtualization architecture with third parties, for use in an expanded Silkworm switch offering built-in routing capabilities and slated for release late next year.

Some switch makers, such as McData, and storage array providers like EMC Corp., are among those that have already fleshed out their own approaches, processors, operating environments, and third-party partners. Some run virtualization out of band in a control path separate from live data, while others run it as an in-band application, applying virtualization to the data packets directly.

"All this stuff will show up with different implementations with different third parties. It will be pretty interesting," said Thomas Nosella, a senior technical marketing manager at Andiamo, the storage-area network switch developer Cisco helped launch and which it plans to acquire.

Anything goes

"Interesting" is one way to describe virtualization; a rat's nest of ideas where almost anything goes might be another. "Virtualization is probably the most misused word in the industry," said Ken Steinhardt, director of technology analysis at storage-array giant EMC. EMC splits storage management into five categories: discovering systems, monitoring them, reporting statistics, provisioning storage, and automating all of these functions. The provisioning, or allocation, of storage file or volume spaces on various physical or logical drives is how EMC defines virtualization.

The provisioning job is particularly thorny because it entails working not only with multiple kinds of storage arrays, but with multiple servers and their unique proprietary file systems. And, new protocols are emerging such as Direct Access File System, which brings remote direct memory access capabilities to Ethernet and Infiniband networks.

For its part, Intel Corp. has tried for several years to encourage storage vendors to adopt an object-oriented approach that would ride above various file systems, masking their differences, but so far vendors have not bought into it, said Drew Jensen, tech marketing engineer in Intel's embedded group.

Instead, each vendor is going its own way, including makers of Ethernet-based network-attached-storage systems now working on clustered NAS boxes with novel file systems. "There are dozens of vendors doing a variety of things," Jensen added.

"We can do discovery and monitoring of systems across most vendors' products today," said Steinhardt of EMC, which is focusing on developing interoperability with multiple vendors. "We can do reporting across about half that space and provisioning and automation now on only our own systems," he said.

Even in its own portfolio, EMC has multiple architectures to support. The Symmetrix storage array uses up to eighty 333MHz to 400MHz PowerPCs and a proprietary Enginuity OS. The Clariion array, acquired from Data General, uses four 2GHz Pentium 4 controllers and a proprietary OS, Flare.

Value proposition

For all that, storage-management software is as important as it is complex, because it delivers the ease of use that customers seek when they put expensive hard-disk arrays on costly, complex switched Fibre Channel networks. "Management software is where a lot of the value proposition [for storage networking] is, and that is still in its infancy," said Bob Passmore, a storage analyst at Gartner Group.

Cisco comes to the storage-networking market with its MDS 9000 switch, which is based on two redundant 1.2GHz Pentium III supervisory processors running a custom version of Linux that is made to resemble the command line interface of the IOS operating system Cisco uses on its Catalyst routers.

The other key merchant-market chip in the MDS switch is a Broadcom SiByte processor running at 700MHz that handles SCSI-over-IP (iSCSI) and TCP offload functions. The system's linchpin is a customized crossbar switch that provides an aggregate 1.44Tbps throughput across the backplane.

Starting in late 2000, Andiamo's engineers, mostly Cisco veterans, developed seven ASICs for the MDS storage products. The ASICs covered packet forwarding, querying and queuing, and included an arbitration checker, a quad Ethernet MAC and interface chips to the crossbar switch and to the SiByte processor.

A chassis can provide up to 256Mbps Fibre Channel ports, the maximum allowed in one system by the Fibre Channel standard. That is based on 32-port cards where each group of four ports shares one 2Gbps Fibre Channel link. "Our 32-port card is oversubscribed," Andiamo's Nosella said. "I have spent time with large financial customers. They are asking us to build something as big as possible."

Andiamo borrowed a number of ideas from its Ethernet switch products for the MDS 9000, including a capability to create virtual storage-area networks (VSANs), like virtual LANs. The function differs from traffic zoning handled on existing storage switches, however. "Zoning gives isolation from one area seeing another, but it does not isolate anything from fabric-wide events. VSANs are at a level below zoning," Nosella said.

The MDS 9000 creates multiple fabrics in a chassis using unique domain IDs and trunking ports for each VSAN. Andiamo adds and strips off a proprietary enhanced interswitch link header to VSAN traffic as it enters and leaves a system. The VSANs work over long distances using the Fibre Channel-over-IP protocol.

Andiamo also uses Cisco's EtherChannel trunking to link to a Catalyst router and the Cisco Discovery Protocol for tracking information on system serial numbers, software versions, IP addresses, and other data between systems. A 10GbE version of the MDS box is to ship late next year, Nosella said.

Andiamo's spin

Andiamo got its start late in 2000 when Cisco's chief development officer, Mario Mazzola, gathered a group of about 30 Cisco engineers to attack the emerging market for storage switches. Many of the engineers had been part of Mazzola's switch design team at the former Crescendo Communications, which designed the Catalyst 3000 and 5000 routers at Cisco.

When the high-tech bubble burst in early 2001, Cisco launched Andiamo as a separate startup with its own equity to attract top talent, under the protection of a guaranteed investment from Cisco, which holds exclusive rights to make Andiamo's products. To date that investment has amounted to about $84 million in the form of a convertible note that Cisco has accounted for as R&D expenses.

Cisco has agreed to acquire Andiamo, but the exact price could vary from zero to $2.5 billion depending on product sales over a fixed three-month period. This novel arrangement, which Cisco calls a "spin-in," balances the need to protect the startup, attract talent in technologies such as Fibre Channel where Cisco is a newcomer and motivate engineers to propel Cisco into a lead spot in storage networking.

"The spin-in gave us the opportunity to do what we needed to do to get into this industry, to focus and to attract good talent," said Nosella.

Andiamo now employs about 270 people, 230 of them engineers, at a time when most Cisco departments are under a hiring freeze or still laying off EEs.

The startup has come a long way from its 35-person staff in January 2001. "We could all fit into one small conference room when I joined," said marketing director Jackie Ross. "The bubble had burst by that point, so knowing Cisco had an investment in the company was very helpful." Ross said Andiamo systems will carry the Cisco brand.

- Rick Merritt

EE Times





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