Juniper's QFabric System: Questions And Converts

Juniper Networks has been under scrutiny this year due to a string of disappointing earnings reports and its exposure to a sluggish North American service provider market. It's also taken a few professional knocks for QFabric, the converged data center system that Juniper unveiled to much fanfare 18 months ago but on whose exact customer adoption levels Juniper has been vague.

Far underneath all that high-level discussion, however, Juniper is winning QFabric converts among its channel faithful, who liken the QFabric rollout to Juniper's similarly criticized expansion into Ethernet switching nearly five years ago. They applaud what Juniper's done so far to drive channel sales -- especially following the introduction of a QFabric system intended for midsize data centers -- and top Juniper partners are investing substantially to evangelize the platform.

Customers are kicking the tires, partners say -- QFabric is a long-haul bet, not a short-term gratification.

[Related: Juniper CEO: Innovation Trumps Market Uncertainty To Drive Partner Success ]

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"The story resonates with customers because you're giving them an upgrade path," said George Miller, vice president of sales, service provider at Torrey Point, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based solution provider and Juniper's 2012 Americas Partner of the Year. "Many see it as an evolutionary step, and as they add applications, they can build their data center in pods. 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."

Torrey Point has two large-scale QFabric sales close to completion, Miller said. Overall, Torrey Point is targeting QFabric at tier-two and tier-three service providers and at larger enterprises looking to revamp their data center architecture. Miller does feel, however, that the M-level QFabric, which Juniper rolled out this summer to expand the QFabric purview to midmarket customers, will expand the offering's appeal and opportunity for more Juniper channel partners.

NEXT: Is Juniper's QFabric Selling?

QFabric itself isn't one single product, but rather a set of devices and software, which starts with top-of-rack QFX switches and includes interconnects and a device management platform intended to provide better control of data center assets.

Officially unveiled in February 2011 after three years under development as Project Stratus, QFabric is the key to Juniper's stated strategy of "flattening" the traditional three-layer data center into something that consumes less power, needs less equipment, and is far easier to manage. QFabric competes against a galaxy of other data center vendors, from Cisco, Hewlett-Packard and Dell to Brocade, Extreme and Alcatel-Lucent, all of whose visions settle somewhere in the converged networking/data center opportunity.

Sunnyvale-based Juniper hasn't offered many details on QFabric adoption, although it told analysts during its second-quarter conference call in July that it now has 200 customers for QFabric -- including systems integrator General Dynamics -- up 50 since the first quarter's reported 150 customers.

During the call, Juniper described QFabric nodes as having "very good uptake" in the quarter but was not specific about what customers are buying -- "node" customers could be those merely acquiring QFabric switches and not buying into the whole infrastructure-plus-interconnect-plus-management-software vision.

Indeed, to both partners and analysts, it's tough to get a handle on how well QFabric has been received by the market.

"I think it's a great vision, but this is a market where vendors are moving to stacks and those who don't have stacks are aligning themselves tightly with those who do. I don't know where QFabric fits into that," Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal of ZK Research, told CRN. "It's hard to get any real sense of whether it really works or not because a lot of the customers so far are only using the top-of-rack switch."

QFabric is asking a lot of customers, Kerravala said, because it is a data center overhaul and an investment in a vision that is singularly Juniper's vs. vendors merely pitching switches and other infrastructure that are part of multivendor environments.

Said Kerravala: "If you've got Cisco's market share, you can take that approach. If you've got Cisco's channel, you can take that approach. But Juniper has neither."

"It's not the easiest sell," said the top sales executive at a national Juniper partner, who asked that his name not be used because he's pitching QFabric to several customers. "It is a proprietary play -- when you get right down to it, you are asking customers to rip and replace. That's an all-in type of decision for customers that are still risk-averse and don't want to spend a ton of money."

NEXT: Juniper Targets The Midmarket

With partners, analysts and other industry observers starting to question QFabric's initial momentum, Juniper is more aggressively promoting QFabric to different types of data center customers. One of its most important moves in that regard came in June, when Juniper confirmed the release of a midmarket-centric version of QFabric, scaled down for customers who aren't service providers or large enterprises, but rather midlevel enterprises with fewer data center needs.

The major difference between the -G level QFabric system, QFX3000-G, that's been shipping for the past year, and the -M system that just arrived, is that the -M system has a different interconnect device, the XFX3600-I, that's a fixed form-factor unit much smaller than the -G system's QFX3008-I.

According to Denise Shiffman, Juniper's vice president of marketing, enterprise systems, fewer than 10 Juniper partners sell the -G system QFabric. However, Juniper has roughly 450 Select- and Elite-level partners qualified to sell its data center products, and about 80 of those sell the end-to-end Juniper servers, storage and networking portfolio. Juniper's data center specialists, a group within its overall global channel support staff, are pushing QFabric sales through that group especially.

Pricing for QFabric is usually customer-specific, depending on the number of devices and software licenses needed, the number of customer sites, and how quickly customers are along the upgrade path from, say, 10 GbE to 40 GbE. List price usually lands on about $1,000 per 10 GbE port,but Juniper executives -- and several partners -- confirmed to CRN that Juniper is offering qualified solution providers special pricing to help catalyze QFabric deals.

Frank Vitagliano, Juniper senior vice president of partners, Americas, said Juniper is focused on building the opportunity deliberately -- with partners that understand data center and will build QFabric's market presence as solutions, not as line items and switch resale. In addition to proof-of-concept labs and other resources, Juniper selected 30 solution providers to which it is providing advanced sales and technical training on the QFabric opportunity.

"You have to start somewhere," Vitagliano told CRN in an interview at XChange 2012 in Dallas. "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."

Also key to Juniper's QFabric expansion are two data center-centric distribution relationships: Ingram Micro, which has carried Juniper for many years as its strategic broadline partner, and Arrow, which Juniper added in October 2011 to specifically target the data center opportunity.

Arrow, in particular, will prove valuable as Juniper looks to build converged networking, storage and data center solutions around QFabric with technologies from other vendors.

"Arrow has that tremendous relationship with IBM, they're NetApp's biggest guy, so when you start looking at how to create a bundle in effect to compete against the Vblocks and that stuff, who better to do that?" Vitagliano said. "We're in that process now."

NEXT: Juniper Partners Make The Bet

One Juniper solution provider firmly behind QFabric is Santa Clara, Calif.-based InterVision Systems, which has partnered with Juniper since 1999. The company sees QFabric as the next evolution in a software and converged systems approach from Juniper that logically stems from the data switching platforms it rolled out more than four years ago through the emphasis on Junos, its cross-functional network OS.

"We're very comfortable with Junos and have a lot of happy customers there," said Jason Gress, InterVision president and co-founder. "So we'd been close to the development of QFabric and, with customers, we have paved the way for the possibility they could go QFabric. We think it's going to be successful and are in the middle of testing."

As of August, InterVision had not yet completed a QFabric sale, but the company has invested about $500,000 in hardware, software and components for QFabric lab tests and to fully equip itself for explaining and demonstrating the value of the system to customers.

InterVision's bet is that QFabric ultimately will sway customers taking advantage of longer sales cycles, really putting the technology through the paces and understanding how transformative a model it can be for the next decade.

"Where we are in the sales cycle is that customers now have enough interest to take it to the next step," Gress explained. "What you see with emerging technologies like this is that a little bit of front-loading needs to take place. Remember the way Juniper rolled out its switching platforms -- there was a little bit of pensiveness, and market acceptance didn't really begin untll roughly 24 months. Now, we are very successful with their switching platform. We believe that being early adopters makes sense and that this could be very similar."

There are good channel opportunities in both the -G QFabric system and the -M QFabric system, Gress said, which InterVision views as the "major" QFabric and the "micro" QFabric.

"As a customer grows, you can scale that micro-fabric, and increase the interconnects and increase the management," said Sean McGrath, InterVision's vice president of technology and professional services. "You get a single management plane, so the whole thing operates like a single, giant entity, with a true interconnect. Oh, and it also conforms to the latest DCB [data center bridging] and SOE [standard operating environment] standards, which other vendors may or may not be able to comply with."

Gress and McGrath also like the idea of QFabric-centric data center "bundles" using technology from simpatico vendors.

"Not all customers want to standardize on Cisco," McGrath said. "So there could be a stronger play if Juniper got its business relationships together."