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Cisco adds telemetry to storage networks

News Analysis
Oct 27, 20174 mins
Cisco SystemsComputers and PeripheralsNetwork Management Software

Cisco MDS 9123T FC switch with integrated telemetry helps customers analyze SAN operations better, remediate problems faster and proactively handle storage issues.

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Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

Fiber Channel (FC) storage networks have always been somewhat of a black box. Servers and storage devices are plugged in, and things magically seem to work.

For the most part, storage-area networks (SANs) are reliable and perform well – and they better because the applications that rely of FC-SANs are typically the most important ones in the company. But what happens when things aren’t working? A poorly performing SAN might mean that the database with critical customer information isn’t available or financial records can’t be pulled up. 

Historically, troubleshooting SANs has been difficult because the FC switches give off little data that can be used to identify the source of a problem. Typically, engineers would need to deploy a physical test access port (TAP) or packet broker in front of the product to capture the data. This may seem like a reasonable strategy until one prices out TAPs and learns the price per port is about 5-10x a FC port. Companies that go down this route often buy a few and deploy them only when there is a problem. This causes the engineering team to always be in reactive mode. 

Better way to analyze SAN operations

This week, Cisco announced a new SAN switch with integrated telemetry to enable customers to analyze SAN operations better. Cisco added the FC header information to the streamed data, enabling management tools to have a better view of the end-to-end FC fabric. Now if a problem happens, an administrator can see it immediately and remediate the problem. 

Also, the data can be captured, baselined and monitored, so storage operations can move to a more predictive model and upgrade systems before a problem damages the business. This lets the engineers focus on strategic things without having to jump into firefighting mode when unknown problems come up.

The SAN telemetry has some interesting implication for Cisco customers. The streaming data can be used to improve the accuracy of Cisco’s other analytic products, such as Tetration and recently acquired AppD. Cisco has massive amounts of network data to provide insights to customers to help them make better decisions. Now this can include storage data. 

Cisco MDS 9123T FC switch

The capabilities are enabled on the shiny, new Cisco MDS 9123T FC switch using the MDS 9700 32G Module, which has integrated sensors to provide deep-packet, inspection-level insight into SAN fabric, which provides pervasive visibility. These link cards run at speeds of up to 32GB and can be placed anywhere in the I/O path, so it’s completely invisible to normal operations. 

The switch itself is a beefy 32 port 32 GB FC switch. For some customers, this may seem like overkill, so Cisco added some modularity to the product. The switch can be bought with as few as eight ports and then scale up to 32 as the demand increases. The switch has been designed for the data center of the future, with support for flash memory and NVMe coming in a future release. The technical specs of the switch are in line with director-level products but in a 1RU form factor. 

cisco mds 9123t fc switch Cisco

Cisco MDS 9123T FC switch

Cisco has also partnered with Virtual Instruments (VI) to bring better monitoring to high-performance environments, such as those found in financial services or webscale companies. The VirtualWisdom application from VI uses the company’s virtual TAPs to non-intrusively monitor and analyze the performance of large-scale FC-SANs. 

Storage and FC aren’t the most exciting topics, but they’re extremely important because almost all critical data runs across it. Despite the maturity in the market, it’s good to see Cisco continuing to bring innovation to it. Ethernet networks have had advanced telemetry capabilities for years. Bringing these capabilities to FC is long overdue.


Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, and provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers.

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