New director switch might be on the way from Brocade

Brocade is signing up hardware vendors left and right to support its FICON implementation for the SilkWorm 12000 director switch. However, design limitations of the 12000 may have sparked Brocade to prep a new director to launch later this year.

More than two years after Brocade Communications Systems Inc. launched its high-end SilkWorm 12000 director switch, most of the major storage hardware vendors are supporting FICON on the product. But experts believe design limitations of the 12000 may have prompted Brocade to prep a new director to launch later this year.

Rumors are circulating that Brocade is planning a single-domain 128-port switch that may be qualified by OEMs within the next few months.

In the meantime, Brocade, San Jose, Calif., announced that Hitachi Ltd., a subsidiary of Hitachi Data Systems Corp. and Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek) have qualified Brocade's implementation of FICON technology on the Brocade SilkWorm 12000 Director.

According to the online technical dictionary Whatis.com, FICON -- the Fibre Channel implementation of IBM's Enterprise System Connection (ESCON) -- is a high-speed input/output (I/O) interface for mainframe computer connections to storage devices. FICON channels increase I/O capacity through faster physical link rates to make them up to eight times as efficient as ESCON.

Scott Genereux, vice president of global marketing for HDS, said FICON support for Brocade's Director platform lets end users implement a single SAN infrastructure across both mainframe and open-system computing environments.

The SilkWorm 12000 Director supports both open-systems Fibre Channel and FICON traffic on a port-by-port basis within a single switch. The Brocade FICON implementation also supports cascaded FICON fabrics using Secure Fabric OS at both 1 and 2 Gbps FICON speeds.

Computer Network Technology Corp. (CNT) also threw its weight behind FICON support for the SilkWorm 12000 by completing interoperability testing between SilkWorm fabric switches and the CNT FC/9000 Fibre Channel/FICON Director. IBM backed Brocade in October by announcing FICON support on the SilkWorm 12000 for IBM mainframe environments.

So, if everyone's on board with Brocade for mainframes, Brocade should be giving McData Corp. a run for its money in the director-switch market, right?

Marc Farley, president of Building Storage Inc. and a SearchStorage.com expert, said that FICON is one of many features necessary for a director-class switch product, but it is not the primary feature, which is a "scalable, flexible, robust design." This is where Brocade may have fallen short.

According to Farley, the SilkWorm 12000's design is based on a pair of switches that are not connected by anything other than common inter-switch links.

"In other words, it's not a backplane," he said. "For a company that wants to attack Cisco with a questionable oversubscription argument in the low-end products, [Brocade] has to eat their message with an extra helping of crow on the 12000, where oversubscription in the [inter-switch links] would appear to be a much more serious problem."

Design limitations aren't just a concern among industry experts. When EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass., began offering the SilkWorm 12000 in 2002, the company was cautious. It has been reported that EMC began with limited shipments of the 12000 and required customers to sign a letter indicating they understand the product's design limitations.

Farley said the SilkWorm 12000 may contain firmware that can be upgraded, but its limitations revolve around a single management system overseeing the whole switch.

"A failure of management software processes can take down both switches," he said. "That's not what people want from a director. Brocade needs a complete redesign. If they don't get it from the Rhapsody technology, then they are not going to be a player in the director market. FICON is mostly immaterial."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Kevin Komiega, news editor.

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