Cisco has taken its first steps towards Fibre Channel. The company has launched low-end Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN) switches and hopes that –through third party sales, including IBM and HP – they will take it near the top of the SAN market.

“Over the next two years, we expect to be at least number two in this market,” says Bernard Zeutzius, director of SAN product marketing in EMEA for Cisco. For most sectors that would be a rather modest ambition for the network industry’s 800-pound gorilla. However, in SANs, Cisco has to contend with the likes of Brocade and McData.

The MDS 91xx series is Cisco’s first ever pure Fibre Channel product and represents a boost in support from a company that has previously promoted IP SANs heavily. Previous devices such as the MDS 9216 were modular, so customers could configure them as Fibre Channel only, or add an IP blade. Shipping a Fibre Channel only product will allow Cisco to compete on port pricing with the market leader Brocade, said Zeutzius.

“The 9100 series is an entry point for Fibre Channel, for any size of enterprise,” said Zeutzius. “It is something that was not yet in our portfolio. Due to its configuration, it offers the low price per port that is expected.” Apart from the IP option, it offers all the high-end features of previous MDS products, such as virtual SANs, he said.

“This switch will compete in two major markets,” said Zeutzius. “One is the greenfield market for the first SAN installation and the other is the core-to-edge configuration where the enterprise has installed a central SAN but wants to extend it to work groups, or different departments. When you don’t need high density switches, these switches will be attractive.”

The switches will be sold entirely through third parties (IBM and HP are evaluating them, said Zeutzius) as part of integrated storage systems. These partners will determine the price, said Zeutzius. “Cisco will not sell this product direct,” said Zeutzius, pointing out that storage products are still complex and the market is a way off commoditisation.

In future, Zeutzius promised that Cisco would go to higher speeds when the market requires it, particularly 10Gigabit Fibre Channel if that standard is agreed. For now though, he said, Cisco is intent on growing from its small SAN market share to one more in keeping with its standing elsewhere in the network sector: “We now have the right portfolio to address any kind of need in the storage network market.”

The 9120 and 9140 switches are 1U high, and have 20 and 40 ports respectively. Cisco also added features to version 1.2 of its SAN-OS operating system, including LUN zoning for security, VSAN access control, and extended troubleshooting.