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Brocade users give roadmap thumbs up

Users who got a sneak peek of Brocade's new product lineup are overall happy. But they did offer additional suggestions and say they remain cautious over the company's future.

Brocade Communications Systems Inc. unveiled several new products this week, including fabric-based server provisioning and 4 Gbps switches, provoking a mixture of relief and hope from the company's users.

Topping the list of announcements was Tapestry Application Resource Manager (ARM), a surprise move by Brocade into the server provisioning arena. ARM combines software from Brocade's recent acquisition of Therion Software Corp. running on the company's AP7420 intelligent switch, originally developed at Rhapsody Networks Inc. In simple terms, ARM enables IT administrators to boot operating system images and applications from the network.

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"I'm very interested in it: We've been trying to boot off the fabric for six months to centralize patch management," said Robert Stevenson, technology strategist at Nielson Media Research. Stevenson manages a network of 1,500 Brocade switch ports. "Instead of going to 500 servers, I can apply a patch to one central copy of the system image."

Buying Brocade's product won't be automatic, however. Nielson is already testing network-based server provisioning from Racemi Inc., NetBoot and similar capabilities from VMware, owned by EMC Corp. "There's a lot of competition in this space," he said. Stevenson is trying to push a standard through the Blade Systems Alliance to enable network boot across heterogeneous systems.

Stevenson indicated that he wasn't overly concerned by Brocade's recent slump in earnings and ominous investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Department of Justice; however, he said he will be watching this situation carefully. "There's a little bit of concern over the CEO resigning," he noted. More importantly, he wants the company to catch up on developing new technology.

"Brocade is close to a year behind Cisco [Cisco Systems Inc.] with its SANTap protocol. Not many people are deploying Layer 3 applications yet, but Cisco has it for when they do … I hope Brocade catches up, Therion is a good signal," Stevenson said. In addition, he would like to see InfiniBand supported in Brocade's multi-protocol router. "Cisco's acquisition of TopSpin legitimized this," he said.

Another large Brocade shop, Caterpillar Inc., likes Brocade's server provisioning plans and praised the company for its free SAN health-check monitoring software. "We'd been struggling for years to get an SRM [storage resource management] tool like this," said Kenneth Olson, corporate information services, at Caterpillar. He said the company has 24 Brocade switches coming off lease this year and expects a vendor shakeup. "We're getting a lot of pressure from Cisco and there's a strong McData [McData Corp.] camp in the company … Price points will be important."

Olson touches on a sore point for Brocade. Since Cisco 's entrance into the Fibre Channel switch market, Brocade has experienced a gradual decline in its market share. Goldman Sachs & Co. estimated that Cisco picked up 9.2 percentage points of market share in 2004, while recent numbers from The Yankee Group put Cisco at a tie with McData in director revenue with 32.6% in the fourth quarter of 2004. Brocade snuck in with $33.5 million or about 23.3% of the director market in the fourth quarter.

Very few users seemed interested in the 4 Gbps switch announcements. "That's really an industry thing," Olson said.

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