IBM: SAN96C-6 Switch Review

Network switches sit at the heart of storage area networks (SANs), relaying messages between origin devices and their intended recipients. IBM carries a broad range of network switches, each aimed at a different facet of the enterprise market.

The IBM Storage Networking SAN96C-6 Switch is targeted toward all-flash arrays, multicloud environments, and highly-virtualized environments for enterprises large and small. Further, as a Fibre Channel switch, the SAN96C-6 delivers block data with a high ceiling for speed, capping at 32 Gbps.

See below to learn all about the IBM Storage Networking SAN96C-6 Switch and where it stands in the switch market:

The network switch market

Providers of storage area network hardware underwent major consolidations in 2019. What emerged from those acquisitions were a handful of major players, such as IBM, Dell Technologies, Oracle, Hitachi, Huawei, NetApp, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, with others holding smaller individual market shares.

Globally, Fibre Channel-driven hardware like the IBM SAN96C-6 is growing in adoption, but differing standards and protocols between vendors is creating interoperability challenges, hindering some networks with incompatible hardware.

Overall, the market for network switches and other hardware saw significant growth in the last year, even as the COVID-19 pandemic created shortages and delays.

Features

  • Integrated, high-performance network processor: IBM’s SAN96C-6 features their proprietary application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) that is optimized for networking tasks and designed to maintain the fast and fluid transference of data at 32Gbps.
  • Diagnostic and analytic tools: The switch carries intelligent diagnostics tools to help administrators detect and resolve issues quickly.
  • Single-pane management: As one would expect in modern networking components, IBM’s switch, along with other elements of networking hardware from IBM, can be managed with the convenience of a single pane, in this case with IBM’s Data Center Network Manager (DCNM).
  • Secure: The hardware’s bootloader, along with other critical software components such as the system image loader and joint test action group (JTAG) interface, are locked down and kept secure. The switch uses intelligent packet inspectection at the port level. Role-based access control measures use RADIUS, TACACS+, or LDAP authentication. Further, the switch supports IP Version 6.
  • Plenty of ports: Network configurations can scale in increments of 16, deploying with a minimum of 48 ports and a maximum of 96 ports. This enables expenditures to scale in line with networking needs. Further, transceivers can be downscaled to 4-, 8-, and 16Gbps transceivers, keeping capital costs low while retaining the option to upgrade to 32Gbps transceivers should the added speed become necessary.
  • Hot swapping: Dual-redundant power supplies, fan trays with switch integrated temperature and power management, and small form factor pluggable optics are all hot-swappable by default.
  • Scriptable: SAN96C-6 can be scripted from the command-line interface (CLI), contains an onboard Python interpreter, and runs its own event manager and software scheduler. Furthermore, APIs within the SAN96C-6 offer flexible programming opportunities to better tailor management of the SAN.
  • Long range: Several ports can be configured with 8270 buffer-to-buffer credits that can link with data centers 380 miles away while keeping 32Gbps speeds. At lower speeds, these linkages can be maintained at even greater distances.

Benefits

  • High availability: Like many of IBM’s networking switches, the SAN96C-6 is built for high availability through nondisruptive software upgrades, redundant power supplies and other core hardware components, and a supervisor module that monitors processes and recovers them from failures.
  • Geared for scalability: IBM offers a pay-as-you-grow model to help customers pay incrementally for new hardware.
  • Rich analytics: Telemetry data and other metadata is pulled from frame headers and processed on the switch. Outputs can be sent to the visualization platform of the user’s choice.
  • Rich diagnostics: The device features an Inter-Switch Link (ISL) diagnostics tool as well as host-bus-adapter diagnostics.
  • Designed for highly virtualized environments: The switch gives insights into any and all virtual machines passing traffic through it.
  • Intelligent traffic management: Intelligent traffic management allows bandwidth to be intelligently prioritized to essential services. The switch can automatically detect and isolate sources of slow-drain as well as encrypt traffic per security policies or requirements. In addition, the Fibre Channel switch supports automatic zoning capabilities as well as non-blocking forwarding and the creation and management of virtual SANs.

Differentiators

The IBM SAN96C-6 was developed to fulfill the high-speed demands of multicloud or highly virtualized enterprise data centers. Speed increases are being brought to all aspects of storage environments, including the uptick in adoption for all-flash arrays that run critical, high-performance applications. Many of these speed increases will not be fully realized until the switches at the heart of the broader network have been upgraded to support them.

Further, the SAN96C-6 gives its users the options to start at a relatively inexpensive level, with slower and fewer ports, all the way up to the full 96 running at full speed. That same ethos IBM has carried into many of its other switch products in an effort to make its hardware attractive to all corners of the enterprise networking market.

Pricing

As is the usual case with enterprise products, pricing is variable depending on customer needs and setup and requires a quote from the vendor rather than being immediately available online. However, a point of reference can be inferred from IBM’s SAN24B-6 pricing guide, which allows customers to make their own configuration on the fly and will calculate the final price.

User reviews

Although network switches form an essential part of enterprise networks, much of the attention is often given to a network’s endpoints rather than the middle. Thus user reviews for IBM switches are few and far between.

However, reviewers at Gartner Peer Insights consistently praise IBM for its products and services, as one might expect from one the biggest and oldest providers of enterprise solutions.

Conclusions

The price for network switches can start modest but can explode quickly, as more transceivers are added and ports are upgraded to accommodate the latest speeds. Choosing the right switch to support your company’s networking needs can present one with analysis paralysis, given the abundance of options.

IBM has recognized the need for maximal scalability and specialization, both in terms of cost and of performance, and the company has responded to that need with switches, such as its SAN96C-6 for storage networking.

Litton Power
Litton Power
Litton Power is a writer and public affairs consultant. He has an extensive background in science, technology, and the energy sector and was a former science communicator at Idaho National Laboratory. He lives in Tennessee, where he spends his free time hiking, camping, and building furniture.

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