QLogic dives into directors

QLogic will announce its new SANBox 9000 director this week, but it's missing true director-class features and is encroaching on a market already dominated by Brocade and Cisco.

QLogic Corp. has revealed new details on its SANBox 9000 multilayer, multiprotocol directors to SearchStorage.com in anticipation of an official announcement of availability scheduled this Wednesday.

The products are QLogic's first jump into the difficult director-class switch market, where Gartner numbers show Brocade Communications Systems Inc., since its acquisition of McData Corp., with 60% market share and Cisco Systems Inc. with the rest. Cisco, meanwhile, is so dominant in the switch market in general that Brocade and McData's merger was attributed to joining forces to stand up to Cisco. The obvious question then, is why QLogic is getting into this space, and whether or not it has a chance.

"When we first started, we were a chip company," explained Frank Berry, vice president of marketing for QLogic. "By last October, we had sold off our hard drive controller business to Marvell. There has been a marked change in the direction for our company -- the face of QLogic is much more fabric-oriented than in the past."

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QLogic already has Fibre Channel (FC), iSCSI and InfiniBand adapters, and edge and core switches from the 10-port SANBox 1400 to the SANBox 8000 intelligent switch, based on its acquisition of Troika Networks Inc. last October.

As for his company's chances of success within the space, Berry's outlook amounted to "never say never."

"Five years ago we were the No. 4 adapter player," he said. "We were even behind 'other.' Now we're the No. 1 supplier."

The SANBox 9000 series will consist of one model, with an entry-level configuration consisting of a 4U chassis with space for eight 16-port blades, for a maximum capacity of 128 ports. Pricing for a single chassis with two 16-port 4 Gbps FC blades is $50,540. The product scales up by adding a second chassis, which is connected by a 1.6 terabyte (TB) connection to the first. QLogic's management software manages the two combined as one director, meaning at its maximum configuration, the SANBox 9000 supports 256 ports. High-availability features include redundant control processors, redundant CPUs, and power and cooling in each chassis. Nondisruptive code load and activation will be available in January, according to QLogic. Classically, this feature is the hallmark of a true director switch.

Cisco's MDS 9000 series directors and Brocade's SilkWorm 48000 series, meanwhile, start at a 14U size and scale up using blades to 256 ports. Most other director-class switches also support iSCSI and FC routing, FCIP and FICON connectivity. In this initial release, the QLogic product will support 10 Gbps and 4 Gbps FC blades only, with iSCSI routing and FCIP to ship in January. Brocade and Cisco also include services and support, as well as redundant control processors, in their base configurations. The list price on a base configuration of a Silkworm 48000 is an estimated $100,000, according to Brocade. Cisco directors also start around $80,000-to-$100,000 list price, according to channel partners.

But, Berry said, the size and feature differences are exactly QLogic's strategy for carving out its space in the market.

"It's definitely a multilayer, multiprotocol switch -- but it's not the kind of director switch Bank of America will have in their shop, for example," Berry said. The market QLogic is targeting, he said, is the midrange and its existing customers, so it can scale up its connectivity without going to another vendor, he said.

According to Brian Garrett, technical director of the Enterprise Strategy Group Lab, who has tested the product, said the goal is to focus on scaling connectivity between core switches and the low end of the director level -- with some added services in the future, but not as much as the traditional director players.

"QLogic is known for not having a lot of add-on software -- their design goal is to maintain affordability," Garrett said. "They're basically trying to create a new category between classes of switch."

With this first release, the SANBox 9000 also does not yet offer intelligence or data management features, like the Cisco's Storage Services Module blade for the MDS. However, Berry said, QLogic will be adding IP from the Troika acquisition to the 9000 in order to offer some services, as well.

OEM deals in the works

Berry also hinted that a major OEM deal for the new director is set to be announced at the end of this month, but said he was unable to name the partner at this point. Further digging revealed the deal for the end of the month is supposed to be with Apple Computer Inc. -- and rumor also has it among industry sources that an OEM deal with EMC Corp. could be in the works.

According to Rick Villars, vice president of storage systems with IDC, the shops most likely to benefit from the new product are those who still don't have huge capacity, but find themselves trying to manage growing numbers of servers. In other words, storage area network (SAN) stragglers.

"People who are still using hundreds or thousands of servers with local storage are starting to need the SAN infrastructure to scale, but they don't need some of the extreme functions a high-end customer demands," Villars said.

One such customer is Ramy Katrib, founder and CEO of DigitalFilm Tree, a Hollywood post-production house that plans to use the 9000 as a "traffic cop" for its two QLogic 5600s and two entry-level QLogic 1400 10-port switches. These in turn are connected to hundreds of workstations, including a processor farm consisting of several dozen PC-based render nodes and close to 50 Macintosh systems also used by animators at the company. DigitalFilm does post-production on feature films and TV shows like NBC's Scrubs.

Right now, according to Katrib, his company has a single chassis fully populated at 128 ports, but they have already purchased the second chassis in anticipation of new growth.

"When we get new products, we have to add workstations," Katrib said. The larger director switch would allow for that scalability, as well as boosted throughput with the 4 Gbps and 10 Gbps blades, which Katrib said DigitalFilm plans to mostly dedicate to render nodes.

The company is in the process of growing, and several anticipated feature film projects could double the size of its environment in the next year or so, Katrib said. But the fact that the 9000 doesn't scale beyond 256 ports isn't an issue, he said, since the company's response to growth has been to split off departments onto their own separate networks. Already, he said, the fabric centralized on the 9000 belongs solely to the high-end video effects department -- and if a project was big enough to require the addition of another network, the company would use Advanced Digital Information Corp.'s (ADIC) StorNext software to give users access to data on a neighboring network, should they need it.

"I know the [scaling] issue is in discussion," Katrib said. "But it's fine for our needs."

At least one competitor, Brocade, is dismissive of the QLogic product. "It's true that they're a lot less expensive in the minimum configuration, but as you scale up to higher port counts where customers are actually deploying directors, the contrast becomes smaller," said Mario Blandini, director of product marketing for Brocade. At 256 ports, Brocade estimates its price at $350,131.

"This product is basically the same as the [QLogic] SANBox2-64, which is a 2 Gbps version that has never gotten any market share," Blandini added. "That product doesn't have modules for FCIP and iSCSI -- and neither does the 9000 -- at least not until next year, if then."

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