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The Value of Choice in FICON Storage Area Networking

Having a choice means having options to select from.  Most of us like to have a choice when it comes to purchasing products.  Imagine how boring life would be if we all wore the same clothing every day as if we were in the military (been there done that).  Or imagine if every motor vehicle on the road was the exact same model, style, and color.  Thankfully we have evolved from the days when as Henry Ford said back in 1909, “A customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”  Having choices also is beneficial as competition generally keeps prices in any marketplace more competitive.  It also means that you can hold your vendors to a level of accountability when it comes to quality, service, and support.

How does this relate to FICON storage area networking?  Good question.  Please read on.

IBM OEM mainframe storage networking history

Let’s get in our Delorean, engage the flux capacitor, punch in a date in the past and take a brief stroll down I/O memory lane.  If we go back twenty-five years, to the days of ESCON, IBM has OEMed storage networking products, such as the 9032-5 ESCON director (IBM OEMed the 9032-5 from McDATA).  While there were other ESCON directors on the market, IBM chose to OEM the 9032-5.  When FICON directors were introduced to the IBM mainframe universe, this practice continued.  Some FICON directors were OEMed by IBM, while others were merely resold.   Many IBM mainframe customers preferred to buy the IBM branded OEM ESCON and FICON directors.  The IBM brand on the product carried with it perceived additional quality. reliability and value.   This was very important to the mainframe customers.  It also was noticed by the storage networking vendors.  As one of my former colleagues at a mutual former employer used to call it in his conference presentations, the IBM OEM brand was a “badge of honor”.

Fast Forward to the FICON era

Let’s get back in our Delorean, reload the flux capacitor and come back to the more recent present.  A series of acquisitions took place between 2003 and 2017.  Inrange was acquired by CNT in 2002, CNT was acquired by McDATA in 2006, and McDATA was acquired by Brocade in 2007, reducing the number of FICON SAN vendors to just two:  Brocade, and Cisco.  It should be noted that Brocade was acquired by Broadcom in 2017, but there are still the two FICON SAN vendors.  From 2007 onward, because of these acquisitions, Brocade products were the only IBM OEM FICON SAN products.  The acquisitions eliminated choice for those who wanted to purchase IBM OEM FICON Directors.  Cisco was resold by IBM, and other vendors, but the Cisco MDS was not an IBM OEM FICON director. 

On December 4, 2018 this all changed.  IBM and Cisco announced an OEM relationship in which IBM would be OEMing the Cisco SAN products, most notably the Cisco line of MDS FICON directors.   IBM Z customers once again have a choice of multiple families of IBM branded, OEM FICON directors as the IBM SAN768C-6, IBM SAN384C-6, and IBM SAN192C-6 join the ranks of IBM OEM FICON SAN products.  There is another sheriff in town wearing that “badge of honor” to join the old sheriff.

What does this mean?

What this really means is you now have a choice between the families of IBM OEM FICON directors when you are considering a purchase: IBM B type (Brocade), and IBM C type (Cisco).  Is one better than the other?  That is not for me to say, you need to evaluate the products on their own merits for your environment and specific requirements.  But, now there are two vendors who have earned that IBM OEM logo for their FICON directors.  Having choice when it comes time to upgrading to new FICON SAN technology will be good for IBM Z customers.

Many of you undergo your FICON SAN technology refresh when you upgrade to the latest IBM Z platform, or when you upgrade your mainframe attached primary storage arrays.  That strategy makes a lot of sense:  minimize the total number of disruptions. 

So now you’re saying, great but switching is too hard, isn’t it? 

Traditionally, SAN customers have been hesitant to switch from one SAN vendor to another due to perceived added complexities that could be introduced.  Keep in mind however that from a hardware perspective, the IBM B type and IBM C type FICON directors both comply with the same T11 standards.  They also both comply with the IBM FICON director programming interface specification(s). 

Also, you may hesitate because you have become familiar with technical personnel from your FICON SAN vendor and have formed a “trusted advisor” type of relationship.  Well, as most of us have seen over the past two years (it is obvious on Linked In), acquisitions in the storage networking industry have led to significant employee turnover and/or staff reductions.   So, you may not have the same level of support you are used to.  A former dedicated resource for you may now be supporting multiple customers across a three-state area. 

The most difficult part of these migrations/upgrades involves the management software.  People like to work with tools they are already familiar with, so in the past, most FICON director technology refreshes did not see customers migrating from vendor B to vendor C, but rather from one generation to another of the same vendor’s product.  People did not want to need to learn how to use a new management tool.  Vendors banked on that. 

Guess what. Chances are, for your future FICON director technology refreshes, you’ll need to learn how to use a new management tool regardless: On December 2018, Broadcom announced a new Brocade SAN management platform.  You can now evaluate the IBM B type and IBM C type hardware and software without having to worry about selecting one means potentially needing to learn a new management tool and having that potentially skew a technology decision.  You will need to learn a new management tool, regardless. Henry Ford would have been proud.  Because at the end of the day, while you now have more choice, you can still have an IBM FICON director in any color, as long as it is black.

Stephen Guendert, Ph.D.

IBM Z Hardware Systems Architect at IBM
Steve Guendert, aka “Dr. Steve”, is in an IBM Z senior engineering role based in Poughkeepsie where he is on the IBM Z Hardware architecture team. He works on all aspects of IBM Z I/O and timing architecture, including the Server Time Protocol (STP), FICON and zHPF architectures. He is a member of the Mainframe Hall of Fame and the IBM Academy of Technology.
Stephen Guendert, Ph.D.
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This Post Has One Comment

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    Gil Peleg Reply

    Are you seriously calling 2 vendors who both license the same proprietary spec from a single monopoly, a choice? Look at how many choices there are for the standard fibre channel based SAN or TCPIP based networks… not only in networking equipment but in vendors who offer storage solutions.

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