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Out of the frying pan and into the Fibre

Fibre Channel switch vendors have come together to develop a standard that will ultimately allow customers to leverage different vendors' products against each other and in turn, possibly lead to heavier competition and lower prices.

Yankee Group analyst William Hurley sees the standard as a step in the right direction for the industry and said that by delivering storage communications platforms that are interoperable, storage managers can now comfortably architect more extensive SANs, because they can source multiple vendors, without necessarily introducing greater complexity and management overhead.

The standard, called the Fibre Channel Switch Fabric 2 (FC-SW-2) was developed under the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS) T11 technical committee through a cooperative effort by companies including Gadzoox Networks Inc., QLogic Corp., Brocade Communications Systems Inc., McData Corp., Vixel Corp., and Inrange Technologies Inc. The NCITS is a committee of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) that serves as the governing body of T11 and other standards organizations.

"The good thing was that all the switch vendors came to the table and contributed to the standard," said Wayne Rickard, senior vice president and chief technology officer, Gadzoox Networks, San Jose, Calif. "Everybody was involved."

But it seems the cordiality ended at the standards table.

While the vendors have agreed to work together on a technical level -- on the business level there's a difference in viewpoint as to whether the standard will increase competition among switch makers.

Most switch makers see this as a huge opportunity to grab a bigger piece of the market, while the market leaders stand fast in their claim that this standard's push will have little effect on their market standing.

Brocade, San Jose, Calif., is without question the biggest dog in the yard. A recent report from IDC ranks Brocade as the number one provider of Fibre Channel fabric switches in 2000 and 2001. The report put the overall market at $1 billion this year. IDC said Brocade accounts for 93% of all fabric switch factory revenue.

Jay Kidd, vice president of product marketing for Brocade, maintained that while other Fibre Channel switch vendors perceive that the FC-SW-2 standard gives them access to Brocade's huge installed base, Brocade does not feel threatened. "We don't see this as a threat to our market share," said Kidd.

Brocade does not see the FC-SW-2 standard as a big deal in terms of the market competition.

"The reason you bring in a multi-vendor solution is to gain leverage against the vendors," he added. Kidd said adding multiple vendors to the mix adds to the cost and complexity of management and often times it's not worth the effort for the user. "Interoperability is like life insurance. You need to have it, but you don't want to have to use it," he said.

"When you build a SAN fabric, the capabilities of that fabric are limited to the weakest link in the chain," said Kidd. In a multi-vendor SAN configuration, Kidd said, the customer loses access to features like ASIC prioritization, advanced zoning, and some security. Brocade is steadfast in its claim that at the end of the day, the customer will remain loyal to Brocade products. "Any improvement in interoperability is a good thing. But realistically most customers tend to stick with one vendor for the purpose of simplification. Customers would have to give up Brocade features," said Kidd.

Gadzoox' Rickard said not making all the features on Brocade's products available in a multi-vendor environment is an exclusionary practice ? noting that not all Brocade features will work if connected to another vendor's switch.

However, Kidd says it's incumbent upon the other vendors to bring their product up to the level of Brocade's features set.

"Interoperability issues have been a barrier to deploying some SAN configurations," said Rickard. "The SW-2 standard is a first step in getting customers a broader range of choices. It's definitely going to increase the competition as well as the market opportunity for companies [like Gadzoox].

QLogic sees the FC-SW-2 standard as a boost to SAN technology in general, saying that people will adopt SANs at a faster rate. "Interoperability issues have not allowed for SAN adoption to grow as fast as it could have," he said. "I think that we need interoperability so that a company like a QLogic can go into a Brocade-dominated environment and give customers a choice."

"This standard is not for Brocade and it's not for QLogic. It's for the customer. It increases competition and brings down the price," said Dino Balafas, director of product marketing for QLogic. "We intend on having our FC switches sell at a higher rate than the overall market and the only way to do that is to take a piece of Brocade's market share, said Balafas. "We're going right at them."

All the vendors involved in the NCITS T11 committee have access to the FC-SW-2 standard and are planning to incorporate it into their existing and future products. McData is already shipping director-class devices with the FC-SW-2 capabilities and Brocade claims to have had the technology in its switches for two years. QLogic, Gadzoox and Inrange all said they would utilize the standard.

Earlier this month McData was the first to announce an FC-SW2 compliant Galaxy Class Director, which the company said is interoperable with 90% of the current installed base of fabric switches, including those from Brocade.

Both McData and Brocade are market share leaders in their respective sub-segments of the Fibre Channel space and, according to Hurley, now that FC switches can interoperate it allows the two category leaders to pull away from the rest of the Fibre Channel element pack. "Extensive testing is requisite to ensure a commercially ready solution," said Hurley. "It's just that these vendors executed first."

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

For more information:

FC-SW-2 Documentation

ANSI t11 Committee website

Inrange claims third place in high-end switches

McData Touts Interoperable Storage

Rival switch vendors smoke interoperability peace pipe

American National Standards Institute

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