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SD2003: Brocade's long-term viability questioned

Brocade came under fire during the Storage Decisions show in Chicago this week for its questionable product strategy and aggressive behavior toward competitors such as McData.

CHICAGO -- If it's true that the switch is the heart of the storage area network (SAN) then Brocade Communications Systems Inc. may need open-heart surgery to realize a healthy future.

"I would characterize Brocade as in denial about everything," said Gartner Inc. vice president and research director Nick Allen during the Storage Decision's 2003 Conference this week. "So far, they have been nimble enough [to stay competitive] through acquisitions, but [they] have been reactionary."

Allen was referring to Brocade's efforts to bolster its virtualization features in late 2002 by acquiring intelligent switching startup Rhapsody Networks Inc. The buy came after Sun Microsystems Inc. acquired Pirus Networks and Cisco Systems Inc. entered the storage switch marketplace.

Now, new questions are being raised about Brocade, in the wake of increased aggression among its competitors: McData Corp. recently boosted its switch lineup with the additions of Nishan Systems Inc.'s IP storage technology and Sanera Systems Inc.'s director-class technology. Also, earlier this week, Cisco announced the release of two entry-level, low port-count switches.

Despite Allen's comments, he still puts Brocade at the top of the switch market, but he questioned whether the company would remain there, saying it lacks a clear IP storage strategy. Allen also said that, if Cisco continues to execute as quickly as it has, it may move into the leadership role.

Users also questioned Brocade's ability to satiate their end-to-end needs in the near future. A panel of three users was asked to rank Brocade and its competitors, and Brocade drew less-than-ecstatic reviews from some of them. The panel included Sanjay Mandloi, vice president of J.P. Morgan Chase's LabMorgan technology division; Michael Passe, senior systems engineer for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston; and Troy Brick-Margelofsky, senior systems and storage administrator for Land's End Inc.

Mandloi's No. 1 choice was "hands down" McData, with Cisco second and Brocade third. Mandloi, who had just been through the switch-buying process, said he picked McData because the company provided the most end-to-end products.

Mandloi said he went with McData's Intrepid director because, at the time, Brocade did not offer hot code load for its SilkWorm 12000 director. Hot code load was important to him because he needs to perform rolling upgrades. Mandloi also said that, even after Brocade offered hot code load, he still preferred McData because he received mixed reviews from colleagues about the performance of the Brocade switch.

Passe, who is actively looking to add more ports to his 64-port, 10 terabyte (TB) network, says his hospital has eased talks with Brocade and is looking more closely at what he calls the "tried and true" McData and Cisco for a director-class switch.

By the end of this year, Passe says, he will have doubled his data center to 20 TB and, by the end of next year, he will come close to doubling capacity again, reaching about 35 to 40 TB of raw capacity. Passe has not yet made a decision as to which switch to buy, but he does rank Cisco as his No. 1 technology choice, with McData second and Brocade third.

Another user who did not want to be identified defended Brocade.

"Brocade has a huge portion of the market share; they must be doing something right," said the user. "Not buying [a Brocade switch] because it doesn't have hot code load is nonsense. You really only need that capability every 12 to 18 months."

The user was also unconcerned about Brocade's IP road map, citing the lack of actual implementations industry-wide.

Despite the negativity, Brocade may not need to react, if it's comfortable providing only edge switches. According to a recent Storage magazine survey, users are buying smaller switches. More than 75% of users said their switch purchases in 2004 will be for switches with 32 or fewer ports -- which is clearly Brocade's sweet spot.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Lewis, Site Editor

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