Brocade upgrades FC SAN software, switch; looks to 32-gig FC

Brocade is still a fan of FC SAN technology. Today it launched new management software and a 16-gig, 96-port switch, and pledged to support 32-gig.

Brocade pledged its loyalty to Fibre Channel storage networking today by launching fabric management and analytics software and a 96-port, 916-Gigabit-per-second FC switch, and promised a roadmap through 32 Gbps.

Although FC is considered a low-growth technology area -- the addressable market increased 4.5% in 2012 from 2011, according to the Dell'Oro Group market research firm -- Brocade still gets most of its revenue from its FC SAN connectivity products.

"Customers who buy Fibre Channel today want to know Fibre Channel will be there in the future," said Scott Shimomura, Brocade's director of product marketing.

The new management features come from enhancements to Brocade's Fabric OS and Brocade Network Advisor software. New features in what Brocade calls its "Fabric Vision" technology include policy-based tools for setting threshold configuration and monitoring; tools for monitoring and analyzing application data flows, network congestion and latency; and customizable dashboard views to display important information on one screen.

Brocade's Monitoring and Alerting Policy Suite, or MAPS, simplifies the process for establishing policy-based thresholds that let administrators set alerts when the status of a switch meets a specific condition. FlowVision monitoring and alerting shows both bottlenecks and the hosts and applications affected by them.

"Normally, people associate us with hardware, but we've invested a lot of time and money the past couple of years developing software for switches and management," Shimomura said. "We want to make fabrics more reliable and easier to manage."

Shimomura said the new features eliminate the need for third-party tools, such as the SAN Traffic Access Point (TAP) applications sold by Virtual Instruments and others. The third-party products have broader support than Brocade's, however. Brocade's Fabric Vision today still only sees Brocade devices.

"Brocade should've done this a long time ago," said Ashish Nadkarni, a storage research director at IDC. "Companies like Virtual Instruments have been beating up Brocade because Brocade lacked these capabilities natively so they had to depend on third-party apps. Now you can do it natively on the Brocade switch."

Having monitoring and analytics natively can now give Brocade an edge over the third-party tools, Nadkarni said. "Inserting TAPs into your network can be a dangerous situation; bad things can happen if you're not careful," he said. "And TAPs aren't free. With Brocade, it's part of the core software built into the switch."

End-of-row Fibre Channel switch

Brocade also rolled out its 6520 switch, a 96-port 2U device that is the largest of its 6500 platform. The 6520 replaces the 80-port 5300 switch as Brocade's high-density end-of-row or core fabric switch. Other Brocade 16-Gbps switches include the 6505 and 6510. The 6505 is a 1U 24-port entry-level top-of-rack switch, and the 6510 is a 1U 48-port high-performance top-of-rack switch.

Brocade also has DCX SAN Backbone 16-Gbps FC director switches, as well as FC SAN blade server and encryption switches.

Brocade OEM partners Hewlett-Packard, NetApp and Fujitsu are selling the 6520 switch and Network Advisor 12.0, and EMC, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) and Dell are still qualifying the products.

Next-generation Fibre Channel?

Brocade is trying to change the way people talk about Fibre Channel. It calls its 16-Gbps devices "Gen 5 Fibre Channel," and refers to the coming 32-Gbps devices as "Gen 6 FC."

"When customers think about storage area networks, they think about FC, not speeds," Brocade's Shimomura said. "When we say 'Gen 5,' we're talking about more than just speeds. It's about everything we deliver in the platform."

Shimomura said he expects 32-Gbps FC standards to be final by the end of this year, and Gen 6 Brocade products could be available by the end of 2015. Brocade also is working with the OpenStack Foundation on open source software to manage FC fabrics in clouds. Brocade and some of its OEM partners plan to propose a Fibre Channel SAN Zone Management blueprint at the OpenStack Summit in April.

The Gen 5 label comes from Brocade, not the Fibre Channel Industry Association, which drives standards and FC marketing. Shimomura said he hopes that FC host bus adapter vendors Emulex and QLogic pick up on the name. If it catches on enough, perhaps Brocade's FC-switch rival Cisco will adopt it. But it could get confusing if Brocade is talking about Gen 5 and the rest of the industry refers to it as 16-gig Fibre Channel. "As the market share leader, we have the ability to influence the market," he said.

Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) senior analyst Bob Laliberte said "end users will ultimately decide if they want to call it '16 gig' or 'Gen 5.'"

Whatever it's called, Brocade maintains a strong lead in 16-Gbps FC. Cisco FC switches still support only up to 8 Gbps, although it is expected to add 16-gig capability soon. Unlike Cisco, Brocade is betting that FC will have a long lifespan despite the rising popularity of Ethernet in networked storage. Fibre Channel over Ethernet, or FCoE -- a protocol pushed by Cisco -- has not made much of a dent in SANs, and that been a plus for FC.

Brocade also sells Ethernet switches from its Foundry Networks acquisition. But FC makes up a majority of its business, while Cisco sells a lot more Ethernet than FC. So, Brocade is counting on FC sticking around.

"Brocade is telling the market 'We are not abandoning Fibre Channel,'" Nadkarni said. "In fact, Brocade is upping the ante with tools that you had to rely on third-party products for before."

Predictions of FC's demise have proven wrong, but it's not clear exactly how much life is left in the old storage networking protocol.

"Everything I've seen says Fibre Channel isn't going away, but it's not clear how strong the growth will be," ESG's Laliberte said. "People with significant investments in Fibre Channel will continue to invest. The question is what the growth rate will look like over the next five years. I talk to a lot of people who say they're looking forward to 32 gig."

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