Cisco is preparing to launch a 528-port Fibre Channel device designed to help companies consolidate their storage-area networks (SAN) and avoid oversubscribing ports on smaller switches. Cisco would not comment on speculation but industry sources said the market was now ready for such devices.

The Cisco MDS 9513 MultiLayer Director was originally announced in August 2002 when Cisco first said it was getting into the Fibre Channel switch market. But the company decided to hold the then 256-port MDS 9513 off the market due to lack of demand for so dense a switch, a Cisco spokesman says.

"Cisco waiting to do a 4Gbit/s x 528-port switch makes a lot of sense," says Greg Schulz, senior analyst with research firm Storage IO. "Keep in mind that the 256-port market is just now in prime time."

The switch, which is in beta test, features 13 slots and 4Gbit/s Fibre Channel ports. It tops Cisco's current high-end offering, a 224-port device, and surpasses McData's 256-port Intrepid 10000 Director. Like Cisco's other Fibre Channel switches, it is expected to support not just Fibre Channel, but other protocols such as iSCSI and Fibre Channel over IP. It also will support intelligent storage services such as virtualisation, sources say.

The desire to get away from oversubscribing current switches could be a powerful selling factor, observers say.

"Oversubscription makes sense if you can manage and allocate the tiered ports similar to how it is done in the LAN world," Schulz says. "However, it has also been a contentious topic among storage administrators, some of whom have seen it as a cardinal sin in I/O configuration."

SAN consolidation also could generate demand.

"Our move to [128-port] director-class MDS 9509s from the core-to-edge scenario has brought ease of provisioning, ease of use and less complexity to our environment," says Michael Passe, storage architect for Caregroup/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. "I would imagine that the MDS 9513 would do the same for people with higher numbers of hosts, who would like to move away from the core-to-edge design they might have used in the past, and consolidate on a single backplane."

Cisco's entry into Fibre Channel storage in 2003 has had considerable impact on the director-class market. In the fourth quarter of 2004, barely one and a half years after entering the market, Cisco and McData tied for market share leadership with 32.6 percent, according to the Yankee Group.