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Cisco, EMC Team on Fabric Encryption

Cisco unveils plans for switch fabric encryption, skeptical users may take some convincing

ORLANDO, FLA. -- EMC World -- With firms struggling to prevent data leakage, Cisco is teaming up with EMC's RSA division to encrypt data traveling across the network. But users say they are reluctant to abandon traditional encryption methods.

The two vendors are looking to push storage encryption into the network fabric in an attempt to tap into users' fear of the embarrassing data breaches suffered by the likes of Time Warner and, more recently, TJX . (See The Year in Insecurity and Financial Security: Priceless.) "What this represents is the next phase of security on the SAN," said Rajeev Bhardwaj, director of product management at Cisco's data center business unit, during a briefing this week.

In a nutshell, Cisco has developed a line card for its MDS family of switches, which it claims will offer 10-Gbit/s AES-256 encryption of data transmitted from servers to back end storage. RSA will handle key management for the technology, which is called Storage Media Encryption (SME). (See RSA, EMC Integrate, EMC Kicks Off With Security, RSA Boasts 8K Customers, Multivendor Management Locked Up, and All Keyed Up With NeoScale.)

Cisco and EMC join a number of other vendors that are already far along in this space, including Sun, which encrypts data within its T10000 tape drive, and encryption appliance players Decru and NeoScale. (See Sun Encrypts Tape Drive, Decru Unveils SecureView, and NeoScale Faces Up to 4-Gig Encryption.)

Users here this week seemed less than overwhelmed by the prospect of SME, preferring the approach taken by other vendors, such as Sun. "For us, the best option would be to encrypt on the tape drives themselves," said Tom Hammond, a network administrator at the Florida Department of Transportation. "For our infrastructure, [tape-level encryption] would work best, because you're encrypting the actual removable media."

Another user told Byte and Switch that encrypting at the network layer would add another layer of complexity to his IT infrastructure. "When you encrypt on the network, there's more moving parts, so it could potentially take longer to troubleshoot," said Rob Reynolds, a storage administrator at Gillette. "I would think that the tape drive is the way to go -- if you encrypt at the tape drive, that's the end of it."

Analysts warn that users are unlikely to do a rip-and-replace of their existing encryption technology. "It’s a hard justification if you have already committed to these technologies," said Rick Villars, vice president of storage systems at IDC. Most tape systems stay in place for years, he observed.

Recent years have seen a flurry of activity in the encryption space, as users come to terms with the need to lock down their vital corporate data. Rivals Decru and Neoscale have even clashed swords over alleged product vulnerabilities. (See Tempest in a Tape Encryptor.)

With the encryption market heating up, Forrester analyst Andrew Reichman feels that users will need to think carefully about their next security move. "You certainly don’t need multiple [encryption] methods, but [SME] is interesting because it presents customers with another option," he said.

Cisco and RSA claim that SME will enable users to quickly deploy encryption within their infrastructure, compared to dropping a purpose-built appliance into their data centers. (See Encryption on the Back Burner.) "To attach an appliance to a SAN, I have to rewire my SAN [and] I have to make configuration changes," said Dennis Hoffman, chief strategy officer at RSA.

The first version of SME, which will be available in the second half of this year, will offer encryption for tape devices and VTLs, with encryption for disk arrays offered in a later release. The two vendors have not yet revealed pricing details.

RSA admitted this week that its key management capabilities could eventually be opened up to other switch fabric vendors such as Brocade. "Cisco is not the only SAN switch in the world," said Hoffmann, although he did not reveal whether deals have been inked with other vendors.

The RSA deal was not the only partner announcement at EMC World this week. Startup Asempra, for example, announced support for VMware, and application acceleration specialist Certeon announced support for Documentum applications. (See Asempra Makes Virtual Move and Certeon Gets Accreditation.)

— James Rogers, Senior Editor Byte and Switch

  • Asempra Technologies
  • Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD)
  • Certeon
  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • Decru Inc.
  • EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC)
  • Forrester Research Inc.
  • IDC
  • NeoScale Systems Inc.
  • RSA Security Inc. (Nasdaq: EMC)
  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW)
  • Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX)
  • VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW)
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