Cisco Bridges IP-SAN Gap

MDS 9216 with IPS blade is a scalable SAN solution; interoperability issues likely.

Cisco IPS Blade

Armed with its new MDS 9000 series of storage networking products, Cisco Systems Inc. is ready to fight its way into the Fibre Channel SAN market. Unlike products such as the Cisco SN 5428, which were designed for small storage area networks, this new line of products has the scalability required for enterprise deployments.

eWEEK Labs found in exclusive tests that the Cisco MDS 9216 Multilayer Fabric Switch can effectively blend the worlds of IP and Fibre Channel SANs. Key to this is Ciscos soon-to-be-released IPS (IP Services) Blade. The Cisco MDS 9216 has a base price of $35,000; pricing for the IPS Blade has not been determined yet.

This is the second product eWEEK Labs has seen in the multiprotocol switch space. The first was Nishan Systems Inc.s eight-port IPS 3000, which we evaluated last May. (See review.)

Unlike the Nishan solution, whose ports could be changed into Fibre Channel or Gigabit Ethernet ports, the Cisco system uses blades to add IP capabilities. Smaller IT shops that want more granularity should take a look at the Nishan Systems switch, while those that require a scalable system and/or want a solution that will fit with existing Cisco gear should lean toward the Cisco MDS 9216.

The Cisco MDS 9216 can support 16- and 32-port Fibre Channel blades, with a maximum of 48 total Fibre Channel ports housed in its 3U (5.25-inch) chassis. (The new Nishan IPS 4000 has 16 ports.)

The blades have small form-factor-pluggable LC interfaces. Older SANs using the SC interfaces will need to sort out cabling before implementing this switch.

Due before the end of this quarter, the IPS Blade bridges the gap between IP networks and SANs with its ability to communicate in both FCIP (Fibre Channel over IP) and iSCSI protocols. The IPS Blade has eight ports and supports three FCIP tunnels per port.

To test the FCIP performance of the IPS Blade, we used two Cisco MDS 9216 units (each with IPS blades) and created an FCIP ISL (Inter-Switch Link) connection between them. We used Finisar Corp. GTX Generators to generate load and measure traffic going from one Cisco MDS 9216 to the other through the FCIP ISL.

During tests, we found we could send traffic at about 105MB per second through the ISL connection. During our first stab at performance testing, the IPS Blade topped out at 76MB per second. After installing new firmware, which added support for automatic maximum window-size configuration and a change to jumbo frames, we were able to get the better performance numbers.

We used the open-source Iometer Version 2003.02.15 to test the iSCSI performance of the IPS Blade. On the server side, we had a Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge dual-Pentium III server running Windows 2000 with Ciscos iSCSI driver, which connected to a JBOD (just a bunch of disks) unit. Running a sequential read test to maximize network throughput, we were able to push 90.86MB per second of throughput.

Management will be an important thing to watch as the MDS 9000 family continues to develop. Within the MDS 9216, there is a graphical Web-based management interface, but we imagine most Cisco-savvy administrators will probably just stick to the command line.

Using the included Cisco Fabric Manager management tool, we were able to easily see all the objects in our SAN and how they were interconnected. Cisco Fabric Manager compares well with other SAN management tools, such as EMC Corp.s Control Center or Veritas Software Corp.s SANPoint (especially considering that Cisco Fabric Manager is free). Dont count on using it as your primary SAN management tool, however.

Senior Analyst Henry Baltazar can be reached at