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User endures integration bump with Brocade blade switch

Brocade has embedded a Fibre Channel switch into IBM's BladeCenter, but watch out for interoperability issues. An early user of the product had trouble connecting to switches from other vendors.

Brocade announced today an embedded switch that will slot into IBM's BladeCenter, positioning 14 blade servers and two Fibre Channel switches inside a single chassis. Users should watch out for interoperability issues, however, if connecting this product to Fibre Channel switches from other vendors.

One of the first users of the product, a company called Rapsheets Inc, which provides criminal background checks for employers, ran into a couple of problems with the installation of the system but said it's working fine now.

"We had to run two pieces of software to get zoning running correctly," said Stanley Griffin, network engineer at Rapsheets. In order to get the Brocade switches in the BladeCenter to connect to external servers running QLogic's Fibre Down embedded switches, Rapsheets had to run IBM's FastT storage manager and the BladeCenter SAN utility software on the servers to make this function work.

A Brocade spokesman confirmed that the company will not ship its blade switches to support rival switches, should users want to connect the BladeCenter to a non-Brocade SAN. "We don't want to dumb down the fabric to mix in multiple manufacturers," he said. In what's called "interoperability mode" Brocade claims users will lose important features like zoning in order to connect to other vendors switches.

Brocade will have plenty of competition in the embedded market from rival QLogic which has been shipping its Fibre Down embedded switch in IBM's BladeCenter for over a year. The two companies will have to compete for market share within IBM. Brocade's version will be available from IBM in June.

Despite the interoperability hiccups, Rapsheets says it has more than 160,000,000 criminal records and the BladeCenter supports its requirement for searching this data very fast. "Brocade's embedded switches connect to our FastT array and provide redundancy as we need fast access to our data 24/7," said Griffin.

The cost savings on space and management afforded by blade server architectures are winning market share according to Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp. (IDC) analyst John McArthur, who points out that 185,000 blade servers were shipped in 2003. The firm predicts over three million will be in circulation by 2008, representing an $8.8 billion revenue opportunity.

Brocade, which appears to be entering a new market every month right now, has decided it wants a bigger slice of this pie. The company recently entered the low end market with two new switches and is beefing up its portfolio at the high end, too. It has almost a year's experience under its belt in the embedded switch market with Hewlett Packard Co. The MFA 1000 storage array from HP has an embedded version of Brocade's 16-port switch. This switch uses Brocade's older ASIC and code base, the company said.

The new embedded 16-port switch, referred to internally as the SilkWorm 3016, is similar to Brocade's 16-port 3850, except that it doesn't have its own power or cooling components. It draws this functionality from the BladeCenter. It's also worth nothing that host bus adaptors (HBAs) are not embedded in the BladeCenter, IBM offers this functionality on an optional expansion card. The embedded switch as two external ports to connect to storage.

Brocade is offering the product in two configurations; an Entry SAN Switch Module for the SMB market and an Enterprise SAN Switch Module for the mid-tier market. The SMB version includes two switches (one for redundancy) and basic connectivity features. It doesn't have advanced ISL trunking, external security, performance monitoring or remote switching, which comes included with the Enterprise Module. For these functions, users must purchase a license key to upgrade. The Enterprise Module can connect to up to 239 switches.

John McArthur noted that this product really "comes into play" when "there's embedded storage on the blade" which isn't available yet. Then users get "really high densities" and "real cost savings," he said. McArthur also noted that these systems need good management tools with everything hidden inside the box. "You need to be able to see what's impacting what," he said.

For more information:

Role of brick and blade servers in the data center

Fibre Down just fluff?

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