Network giant Cisco last week announced a technology alliance with storage area network (San) specialist Brocade. The move gives Cisco expertise in the proprietary fibre channel network technology. At the same time, according to Cisco, it signals not just the eventual eclipse of fibre channel, but of the San itself.
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The two companies will develop a fibre channel interface for Cisco's Catalyst 6000 switches. The partners promise to work on technology that enables their rival switch technologies to link together, and allows fibre channel traffic to be carried using the Internet Protocol (IP).
Brocade specialises in the fast-access Sans that fibre channel was invented to enable. But, with Cisco the dominant player in corporate networks, the agreement means that fibre channel itself could be replaced with IP-enabled networks. The bet is that Cisco's ability to deliver Ethernet performance up to 10gbps will eclipse fibre channel's performance edge.
Once that is achieved, the whole reason for a separate storage network will disappear, Cisco believes.
Peter Alexander, Cisco's enterprise marketing manager, says the agreement is a "key indicator that we believe the future of San is IP-based".
Currently, the storage debate focuses on which of two alternatives allows fastest data retrieval to the main data processing network - a parallel network (the San) or a series of devices attached at local level (known as network attached storage). Fibre channel was seen as the killer application for the San strategy because of its high speed over a wide geographic area.
Unlike the open standard IP, fibre channel handles errors at the hardware level - removing the error routines that slow down IP traffic. But Alexander dropped a bombshell into the storage by declaring that fast Ethernet will kill off the San concept altogether.
"The principle of the San was to bypass low speed and create high speed. If the rest of the network can handle that, you might as well channel your other traffic through it as create a separate network.
"San infers almost a separate network with a separate area. We believe the future is about more integration. Storage will run together with applications over the same network."
"The history of the San is about the need for a network that provided guaranteed performance for the storage - that relied on the speed of the infrastructure, the switches and services. We believe the IP network will provide the speed," says Alexander.
The alliance follows a familiar pattern in which Cisco embraces a leading proprietary technology to influence its roadmap, ensures interoperability with IP-based technology and, ultimately, replaces it with IP.