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Brocade previews server provisioning play

At its user conference this week Brocade will unveil a fabric-based server provisioning capability called Tapestry, alongside 4 Gbps switches and new professional services.

With a user show scheduled to start tomorrow in Santa Clara, Calif., Brocade Communications Corp. jammed the newswires with a raft of announcements: a new 4 Gbps Fibre Channel (FC) switch and director, new professional services, a wide-area file services (WAFS) appliance and perhaps most interestingly, a server provisioning platform.

"It's surprising the see them go in this direction," said Brad O'Neill, senior analyst at Taneja Group, of the new Tapestry Application Resource Manager (ARM) – "they've never done this before." But with the market for straightforward FC switching becoming increasingly competitive and commoditized, "they needed to do something bold."

Tapestry ARM combines intellectual property gained through two separate acquisitions: the AP7420, the intelligent switching platform originally developed at Rhapsody Networks; and software developed by Therion Software Corp., the company Brocade was so secretive about acquiring earlier this month. The resulting switch coordinates the provisioning of operating system images and applications with associated compute and storage hardware.

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In beta trials at "four or five" customers' sites, Tapestry ARM's role is to provide server provisioning in dense, scale-out environments such as blade servers, said Max Riggsbee, Brocade director of product strategy. The platform is expected to ship in the second half of this year.

Brocade is not the first company to address this problem, according to William Hurley, senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. Others include Altiris Inc. and Cendura Corp., as well as the major blade system vendors such like IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. What's different – and good – about Brocade's Tapestry ARM is that because it resides in the fabric, "using fabric booting techniques, the server can be used in a truly diskless fashion," for "a more centralized means to provide system images," Hurley said.

Brocade also announced another member of the Tapestry family, Tapestry WAFS, based on technology from Tacit Networks Inc. Designed to solve the remote office problem, Tapestry WAFS tackles WAN bandwidth and latency problems, as well as file consistency and locking. The appliance starts as a pair of Intel servers – one for the central office and one on the remote office – and is available immediately through Brocade.

According to Riggsbee, Tapestry WAFS runs as an appliance today, but it too is a candidate for integration with the AP7420 platform. Whatever the case, Tapestry WAFS is just "the beginning of a series of steps for us in this space." That's a good thing if Brocade is to keep up with the competition -- Cisco Systems Inc. has also shown a keen interest in WAFS. It already sells its File Engine appliance for accelerating CIFS and NFS file traffic over the WAN, and last week, the company bought HTTP traffic accelerator FineGround for $70 million.

Professional services, meanwhile, are another area that Brocade is hoping to expand in to. Today, the company offers support services through its OEM partners, but has no professional services business to speak of. Going forward, Brocade will offer supplemental enterprise support services, including resident engineers that work at the customer premise. Over time, through "a gradual ramp up" and partnerships, they'll deliver increased "value-add" services around operations, migration, design and implementation, said Hughes Meyrath, director of product management at Brocade.

Last but not least, the company rolled out its latest 4 Gbps switching products: the 48000 director with up to 256 ports and for low-end configurations, the 240E, which starts at eight ports and can be increased up to 16 ports in four-port increments. The two products are currently entering OEM qualification.

Like its midrange SilkWorm 4100 announced last October, the new Layer 2 switches are backward compatible with 2 Gbps and 1 Gbps infrastructure. "It's twice the performance for the same cost, so it's really a no-brainer," Meyrath said. The 48000 also has twice the port count of Brocade's current director, the 24000. However, to achieve 256 ports, you need to use 32-port line cards, which are oversubscribed 2:1. For most environments, that should be fine, Meyrath said. "Frankly, most applications deal with 2:1 oversubscription fairly often," he added. More performance sensitive environments can populate the 48000 with 16-port line cards and avoid oversubscription.

Taneja Group's O'Neill was underwhelmed by the 4 Gbps switch announcements. "What is there to say about them?" he asked. That said, he's bullish on the Tapestry platform, which he calls "a natural extension" of Brocade's core switching products. "Once you've established a trusted brand in the data path, it makes sense to add on another layer of abstraction."

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