Comment The data centre without walls: that's the vision that's driving Brocade. The Fibre Channel fabric king held a Techday Summit in San Jose on May 2 and 3 and outlined its cloud-optimised thinking around the data centre becoming the network in virtual enterprises.
It's a neat vision but what does it boil down to? Every data centre is becoming a service provider. Applications and data move around the network and users can access them globally, which is great for a network supplier as shipping bits through its switches, routers and adapters is what its kit is there to do. The trick is to do it fast, do it in a way that is (relatively) simple to manage, and to do it inside a readily comprehensible scheme and without going too far down the network stack at every network entry and crossing point.
Brocade is pushing the idea of an Ethernet fabric, a flat fast Ethernet somewhat equivalent to Fibre Channel. It has lately had to deal with a new trend, that of customers buying integrated stacks of servers, virtualisation software, storage and networking adapters and edge switches that are available as a single orderable item (SKU) and use both Ethernet and Fibre Channel to get across the network to resources they need and enable end-users or other systems to get to them.
Naturally Brocade, not a large system-level but a best-of-breed Fibre Channel (FC) and Ethernet supplier, is not part of the VCE vBlock integrated bundle or the NetApp/Cisco/VMWare FlexPod bundles, and certainly not the HP Matrix systems. Its stance is that such bundles are less open than they might be. Here's marketing boss John McHugh holding forth on that topic: "[The vertically integrated stack or] cloud in a box. ... Architecturally it is from 30 years ago; it's a mainframe ... But it doesn't give you infrastructure flexibility." What customers need is an open cloud architecture like Brocade's developing CloudPlex architecture.
Virtual Compute Blocks
Against that, Brocade has developed its own Virtual Compute Blocks (VCBs) which are pre-integrated, pre-tested bundles from Brocade and partners such as Dell, EMC, Fujitsu, Hitachi Data Systems, Microsoft and VMware. The Brocade components include the VDX with virtual cluster switching. Customers can use whatever compute platform they wish and whatever storage they want if they so choose, and Brocade's systems partners and integrators will be able to sell the kit and provide unified support.
Brocade can now stand tall alongside Cisco, HP, IBM, EMC, NetApp and Oracle and say it has developed its own integrated stack, an open one. Brocade is playing catch-up for sure, but you can't afford not to have skin in the integrated stack game if you are serious about playing in the cloud computing market: It's table stakes. Brocade is also involved in the OpenStack and OpenFlow initiatives: the company will not be found wanting, or found to be a laggard in the cloud business.
Brocade has also served notice that it plans to aggressively develop its Ethernet kit. There were three new MLXe Series Routers announced, as well as enhanced scalability for the CER 2000 Series Compact Router and the 6910 Ethernet Access Switch. Brocade said a big inhibitor to the spread of 100GbitE was the optic cost. It is working with partners to bring out a more affordable 100GbitE optic for the second half of the year.
Fibre Channel over Ethernet
It announced 16Gbit/s Fibre Channel support and said it was working in the 32Gbit/s FC area as well. With such speed boosts ready now and more coming, why should FC fabric users switch to Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE)? They would exchange twin networks and a separation between them for a reliance on Ethernet with a new Data Centre Ethernet layered on top of common-or-garden Ethernet to provide the loss-less and deterministic characteristics needed. The resulting Ethernet environment would be more complex than their existing one and it's not clear – and this is my sense of various discussions – that there is any compelling reason to migrate off physical FC to FCoE now.
You don't have to do it for speed and you would be putting your carefully tuned and dependable FC traffic at risk. Brocade didn't say this. But it did say it saw no great demand for FCoE from its customers and was content to let their needs drive its strategy. Those needs may change as Ethernet fabrics get larger and faster. Chief Technology Officer Dave Stevens foresaw that, over the next 18 months fabrics will go beyond 10,000 ports and there will be more diverse server connectivity options such as 40GBitE and 100GbitE.
There was much discussion of the IPV4 to IPV6 transition but against the cloud concept and the integrated stack concept this is less important.
Brocade has spent the bulk of its life as a consolidating agent in the Fibre Channel space – remember CNT and McData? Alberto Soto, its EMEA VP, though that there could be consolidation amongst Ethernet suppliers as well: "Some suppliers have difficult financials. They may get acquired ... I wouldn't be surprised. It's an industry that needs investment. To do that you need critical mass."
CEO Michael Klayko said this: "You need to be very very clear what your value proposition is or you will die. In the Ethernet space it's innovate or die. Folks are coming in all the time now ... Complacent suppliers will get consolidated up or they're going to die."
My opinion is that old habits die hard, and a Fibre Channel business consolidator could readily evolve into an Ethernet business consolidator.
Brocade is a determined company of some 6,000 souls. It sees some competitors stumbling – a nod to Cisco closing its Flip business perhaps – and I believe it sees no serious threat to its Fibre Channel dominance. This business is growing and gives Brocade the luxury of a great, solid and reliable revenue stream to develop its Foundry Ethernet IP. The new products announced here are the result of that.
The fabric king is going to push the "data centre without walls" concept and not cede the cloud marketing high ground to Cisco or anyone else. Brocade perhaps senses that Cisco is little on its back foot and that customers are perhaps resentful of Cisco's huge profit margins and the rush to push FCoE down their throats. Virtual enterprises can run Fibre Channel for a while longer and Brocade can try to grab more control over server network edge devices to give it a greater say in the downstream network components.
That's the promise of the Fabric Adapter, and Klayko said: "We're gonna change the industry. If we can control the edge device we can make the network easier to manage." ®