Cisco is buying a 55-man start up that sells in-band file virtualising appliances. NeoPath has previously received an investment from Cisco and now becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary that will be folded into the Cisco infrastructure. Its product groups network-attached storage (NAS) resources into a single logical pool of storage which is then used to serve files to server clients.

Such NAS virtualisation is a way both to increase NAS utilisation efficiency and also, via clustering, to improve NAS performance and resilience, as Isilon does. File storage virtualisation is a hot topic because of the accelerating growth in unstructured, meaning file-based, data. Cisco is following in the footsteps of Brocade, EMC, HDS and HP which have all bought or invested in file virtualisation technology companies:-

- Brocade bought NuView and has engaged in a major File Area Network (FAN) marketing effort
- EMC bought Rainfinity - HDS invested in BlueArc and has OEM'd its high-performance NAS products
- HP has bought PolyServe.

If you are wondering where IBM gets its virtualising file storage from look no further than its storage OEM deal with NetApp and also Acopia. NeoPath's FD-220 File Director is sold through NetApp channels and this arrangement may just have had a termination possibility applied to it.

Sun is also a player in this space, potentially, with its X4500 (Thumper) product. Interestingly much of NeoPath's executive management comes from Sun:-

- President and CEO Alan Baratz
- Founder and EVP products Rajeev Chawla
- Founder and CTO Anand Iyengar
- Founder, VP and chief SW architect Panagiotis (Panos) Tsirigotis
- Product marketing director James Ting

That's an awful lot of Sun recruitment. Vaughn Miller, business development VP, comes from Acopia and COO Ali Zadeh from NetApp, where James Ting also spent time. This is a heavyweight group of storage talent that, hopefully, has trousered a lot of Cisco cash and/or shares.

Cisco's Jayshree Ullal, an SVP in its Datacenter Switching and Security Technology Group, said: "NeoPath's technology will enhance Cisco's Services Oriented Network Architecture (SONA) direction and vision by establishing tighter linkages between file-based data and network accelerated services." (You can see the wide area file services - WAFS - angle here.)

The first thing that strikes one about Cisco's move is that it is a market-following move, not a market-leading one. The second thought is that it is an inevitable move for Cisco as the WAFS product area becomes part of a wider file virtualisation product. Brocade is only too well aware of this which is why it has acquired NuView and built out its FAN markitecture after setting up its WAFS products with the Tacit Networks partnership.

It appears to observers that Brocade is withstanding Cisco's entry into the storage area network (SAN) market with energy and resilience and some success and has a lead in the virtualised file storage market. We know Cisco is playing a long game here, thinking that IP will conquer all, but Brocade knows this too and CEO Michael Klayko seems to be playing his hand of cards at least as well as Cisco if not better.

Cisco faces strong competition from Acopia as well. That company's in-band file virtualisation and data management switch is tearing data management services our of expensive file storage arrays from EMC and NetApp and putting them in the network. Acopia's view of the NeoPath purchase is quite robust: "Cisco's acquisition of NeoPath further validates the file virtualization market; Cisco clearly perceives strategic value in this category. It invests in markets it believe will eventually reach a billion dollars or more. The acquisition validates the fact that virtualization will occur in the network and that it will be provided by systems companies and networking companies rather than proprietary storage vendors."

The subtext here is a dig at EMC and NetApp.

"The acquisition now firmly establishes Acopia as the only independent provider of file virtualization services in the market, uniquely able to provide customers with freedom of choice with respect to storage technologies." Hmm; so Brocade is not independent, and what about Attune? I think Acopia marketing is running away with itself.

Why didn't Cisco buy Acopia instead? Basically because it didn't offer enough money, like a billion dollars: "Acopia is on a different trajectory than NeoPath. With Acopia's significant customer and partner traction, we might be considered more similar to other recent storage related IPO's such as Isilon and Riverbed."

Acopia CEO Chris Lynch and European VP Tim Pitcher, a recent recruit from NetApp, are on a roll. Revenues are pouring in from customers so very grateful to have broken the expensive lock-in they suffered from EMC and NetApp, which Pitcher knows only too well, having helped engineer customers into their predicament when at NetAppp.

Cisco now has a file virtualisation point product. It needs to add much, much more. Customers don't want file virtualisation as such. They want the data management services that are enabled by file virtualisation - protection through replication and backup, file storage efficiency through de-duplication, security through encryption, migration, indexing and classification, policy-based archiving and so forth. That means more acquisitions or a serious amount of partnering.

All Cisco has done is bought itself file virtualisation table stakes. It has yet to build a coherent data management services product set and market it to customers. My guess is that Cisco will become a substantial second-tier file virtualisation product vendor but not break into the front ranks occupied by Brocade, Acopia and Isilon, unless its brings to market vastly better performance or a comprehensive and integrated data management product set layered on the NeoPath technology.

It is very early days in this but Cisco has served notice it is not going to remain in its SAN switch niche or go away from wanting its, rightful to its way of thinking, share of the storage market.