Juniper's Data Center Play: Waiting For Results


When Juniper Networks introduced QFabric in February 2011, the plan for the converged infrastructure system was grandiose: nothing less than a game-changer for the data center.

QFabric, more of a framework than an individual product, includes switches, interconnect devices and a management system. With it, Juniper intends to "flatten" the traditional three-tier hierarchy of data center infrastructure into something that consumes less power, needs less equipment and is far easier to manage.

Nearly 18 months after QFabric products began shipping in September 2011 however, it has yet to take off in the data center. Sales are tepid and some partners are less than enthusiastic.

It's one area many partners expect Juniper to address during the Global Partner Conference, where Juniper is rumored to be making big strategic announcements regarding its software-defined networking strategy, including what it plans to do with assets from Contrail Systems, an SDN startup it bought in December.

SLOW START

QFabric, which spent several years in development as "Project Stratus," served as Juniper's entry into the quickly crowding field for converged infrastructure solution sets, where it competes with Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Brocade, Alcatel-Lucent and a host of other vendors. But almost immediately after its product became generally available, analysts began questioning how quickly QFabric would ramp with customers, especially with so many other converged infrastructure options becoming available.

List pricing usually lands around $1,000 per 10 GbE port but the price can vary widely depending on customer size and requirements.

As of summer 2012, Juniper claimed about 200 QFabric customers, though it has thus far declined to break out which of those are customers who bought the full architecture versus those who merely bought the top-of-rack QFX switches. A Juniper source with direct knowledge of the QFabric group told CRN that as of October 2012, fewer than 20 customers had full-fledged QFabric deployments.

Juniper watchers agree that the only way Juniper will hit QFabric out of the park is to mobilize -- and energize -- its channel enough to convince skeptical technology buyers to back Juniper's data center vision.

"2013 is the year Juniper really needs to step it up in the channel on the enterprise networking side," Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal of ZK Research, said. "QFabric makes sense on paper and the QFabric node is a very fast top-of-rack switch. But how do you get the channel to tell this story? Compared with other networking products, it's expensive and it's proprietary. If you're Cisco, you can get away with that. If you're Juniper, that's not exactly a recipe for success."

Juniper from the start sought to restrict QFabric sales to only the most qualified partners, and even now, fewer than 10 Juniper partners sell the higher-end G-level system. Juniper has about 450 Select- and Elite-level partners qualified to sell its data center products, and about eight months ago, it began to work with 30 solution providers on advanced sales and technical training directly related to QFabric.

"You have to start somewhere," Frank Vitagliano, Juniper senior vice president of partners, Americas, told CRN in August 2012. "When you get into it, it's the partners that understand the data center who quickly gravitate to it and who understand what we're trying to do right away. It's easier to train those partners than it is to transition existing partners into data center or find a partner interested in data center and help them build that practice. That's really hard to do."

Juniper's also expanded its partner offerings overall thanks to a relationship with distributor Arrow, which it added as a strategic data center partner in October 2011.

"It's been a good first year with them and we do view them as a strategic partnership where we can build more value with VARs in converged infrastructure," Andy Bryant, Arrow ECS president, told CRN in December. "Data center is what they hired us to do to some extent, so helping them get a little bit more ammunition in selling into data center made us attractive to them. There's still a lot of work to do."

Juniper claims it is making progress. During the company's third-quarter earnings call in October, CEO Kevin Johnson declined to provide exact QFabric sales numbers but said the QFabric picture is improving. Juniper's June 2012 introduction of a midmarket-focused version of Q-Fabric – the M-level QFabric -- is helping, he said. Also known as the "micro fabric," the product has a different interconnect device and less overall firepower at a lower price to appeal to customers not in need of the more sophisticated deployment.

"This was a quarter with QFabric where we saw much more activity on the interconnect and the directors," Johnson said. "The full QFabric systems that were connecting together many of the nodes whereas in prior quarters, we're seeing more of the activity on the nodes or the top-of-rack side. So I think I attribute much of that to the fact that the release of the QFabric M interconnect has enabled an entry point for customers now that are doing more of those deployments."

Added Johnson: "I think there was a lot of groundwork laid for QFabric nodes that are now being connected together into the full data center solution."

COMPLICATED SALE

Partners say they're slowly taking to QFabric and that it's too early to call the system a success or failure for Juniper.

George Miller, vice president of sales, service provider, at TorreyPoint, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based solution provider and Juniper's 2012 Americas Partner Of The Year, told CRN in the fall that customers would realize the benefits over time and it was incumbent on partners to prepare for a long-haul sales cycle.

"Many see it as an evolutionary step, and as they add applications, they can build their data center in pods," Miller said. "Most companies are looking for six-nines uptime these days. So that reliability has to be ensured, and so does predictive performance, and you get that."

Some Juniper partners just aren't investing time in QFabric, however. A top executive at a well-known national solution provider with strong ties to Cisco, Juniper and HP said his company has no plans to actively sell QFabric even though it's "a really interesting set of technologies."

The problem, the Elite Portfolio partner said, is that Juniper isn't marketing with server or storage partners that it would need to call QFabric a full-stack converged infrastructure deployment to compete with, say, Vblock, the integrated stack of Cisco, EMC and VMware technologies.

"If they're trying to market this as a cloud stack, they haven't done that, and haven't mentioned any partners they're trying to go market with," said the partner, who requested anonymity. "I'm not sure how they're going to have any measurable level of success in the data center if they're not coming to market with at least bolt-on storage or server partners with whom bigger VARs can do account mapping. They haven't done a great job connecting it to a private cloud architecture that customers can buy and build out. Cisco and HP have that. Juniper does not."

"QFabric is a very technical sale, and running the sales process on something like that is not easy," said another Elite Portfolio partner who requested anonymity. "You have to have the folks who can sell it, but also the technical folks who can explain it to customers and particularly, explain it to CEOs, CFOs and CIOs who aren't technical. We're just not going to put the time into it right now -- we don't have the resources to do Juniper's marketing work and evangelism for them."

The QFabric sell is also tricky, channel sources say, because it's asking so much of customers. It involves both a data center overhaul and the longer-term investment in a vision that is singularly Juniper's versus multivendor approaches that package data center components.

"The fear is vendor lock-in. If I go QFabric, I have to really go QFabric," Simon Leopold, managing director of communications equipment for Raymond James, said.

"I don't think a lot of IT managers are interested in rip-and-replace. They still like to buy components and often have their own ideas around the architecture," Arrow's Bryant said. "That creates a challenge, so the value has to stay specific."

THE SDN EFFECT

Lately, Juniper's had yet another challenge with QFabric: how it's positioned in the rapidly emerging market for SDN systems.

At the Raymond James IT Supply Chain Conference in December, Juniper CFO Robyn Denholm described QFabric as having many of the same characteristics -- and solving the same problems -- as SDN technologies, even though it wasn't marketed as such.

"SDN is a major transformational shift that partners need to understand and be able to explain to their customers and cut through the confusion for their customers," Bob Muglia, executive vice president of software solutions at Juniper, told CRN ahead of this week's partner conference. "Understanding the software side of things is a very major aspect of how partners need to make investments in the way that they do business."

But some Juniper observers see the QFabric message getting further buried, now that every networking, infrastructure and data center vendor on the planet has an SDN strategy of some kind.

"If QFabric had come to market a year earlier, it would have been a bigger success story," Leopold said. "It's been unfortunate for Juniper, because now everyone wants an SDN story. And if I'm a customer, I don't want vendor lock-in on QFabric. I want to understand how, if I buy it today, it evolves into SDN tomorrow. Juniper hasn't really told that story."

PUBLISHED JAN. 14, 2013