VARs Say Brocade's Host Bus Adapter Play Won't Be Easy

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Solution providers said the move is one that Brocade has to make, but it will take some time to see how successful the strategy will be.

Brocade has seen that only about 15 percent of servers are attached to a storage network, and that far more servers than storage devices are connected to a Brocade Fibre Channel switch or director, said Tom Buiocchi, vice president of worldwide marketing for the San Jose, Calif.-based vendor.

By expanding its product line to host bus adapters and server network interface cards, Brocade can use its clout in the data center to improve connectivity, add intelligence to storage networks, and help simplify infrastructures, Buiocchi said. "We're in the position to capitalize on all three areas," he said.

To do that, Brocade unveiled a new family of server connectivity products including host bus adapters (HBAs) and intelligent server adapters.

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The first is the Brocade 2110 iSCSI initiator HBA, based on technology the company got as a result of the acquisition of Silverback Systems, a developer of network acceleration technologies, in January. The 2110, which adds iSCSI capability to Windows and Linux environments, is already available to Brocade's channel partners.

The second is a 4-Gbits-per-second Fibre Channel HBA built using a combination of hardware from LSI and Brocade-developed software. It is expected to ship in July.

The other two, expected to ship in the first half of 2008, are an 8-Gbps Fibre Channel HBA and a 10-Gbit Ethernet interface, Buiocchi said.

Carl Wolfston, director of Headlands Associates, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based solution provider, said he wishes Brocade the best, but that he is not sure this is a good move for the vendor.

Part of the problem is that, while it is true that a small number of servers are connected to a SAN, there is no guarantee that customers want to rush to connect them, Wolfston said.

"Let's say it's true that only 15 percent of those servers are attached to a storage network," he said. "That means only 15 percent of the companies say they want to spend the money to attach their servers to the storage network."

Another problem is the fact that the two top HBA vendors, Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based QLogic and Costa Mesa, Calif.-based Emulex, are already entrenched in the data center, making it hard for Brocade to break into established data center storage networks, Wolfston said.

"Let's say I have a SAN fabric," he said. "Do I want Brocade and Cisco switches in the same network? No. Do I want Emulex and QLogic HBAs on the same network? No. The bottleneck in the data center is in processing I/Os, and that is pretty much taken care of in the switches. But to do failover, you need to have the same boards and drivers to make sure it works."

When approaching a data center without an established storage network, Wolfston said he would consider offering the Brocade HBAs to customers. "But if QLogic or Emulex is there, why would I want to add another vendor," he said.

Mark Teter, CTO of Advanced Systems Group, a Denver-based solution provider, said the new Brocade products come at a time when Brocade might have a chance at succeeding in the new market.

"Those are very good opportunistic transition points for Brocade to put their foot in the water and make it a three-horse race," Teter said. "The fact that Emulex and QLogic have not yet exploited 8-Gbps Fibre Channel or 10-Gbit Ethernet gives Brocade an opportunity. Nothing says a customer will stick with its incumbent vendor when making a big transition like 10-Gbit Ethernet."

On the other hand, when it comes to the 4-Gbps Fibre Channel market, the chance to bring in a new vendor is much lower, Teter said. Even so, he said Brocade has a great opportunity to use its marketing clout. "Brocade can do a lot of neat things," he said. "They can tell customers, you buy a Fibre Channel switch, and get two adapters free. It's not a slam-dunk. But Brocade is a good marketing machine."

Brocade's competitors, however, wonder why Brocade is entering the HBA and server connectivity market so late, and why it is partnering with a company like LSI that does not have a significant part of the market.

Mark Smith, executive vice president of marketing at Emulex, said he can understand why Brocade would want to expand its reach into the data center.

"But I don't see a pressing need for customers to change vendors," Smith said. "We're doing a good job of working with customers. Also, Brocade is not really a new entrant into the Fibre Channel HBA space. It's a rebranding of an LSI product that isn't being sold much."

Smith said that Brocade's estimate that only 15 percent of servers are connected to storage networks is, if anything, too high and is actually closer to 10 percent. However, he said, Brocade will not find it easy to compete because it has no name in the HBA market and is initially working with technology that has been around for years.

Smith expects little impact to Emulex by the Brocade move. "We've been good partners in the past, working on interoperability tests," he said. "And we have EZpilot, an integration tool to enable easy-to-install, easy-to-configures SANs. Cooperation is the nature of our business. We expect to continue to work with them. They need to work with our HBAs, and we need to work with their switches."

Frank Berry, vice president of corporate marketing for QLogic, however, said that the relationship between Emulex and Brocade will definitely change. "Emulex was drafting along on Brocade," he said. "It will be hard for Brocade to walk hand-in-hand and say, you should buy Emulex products."

Brocade is also getting into the HBA market late, Berry said. The HBA market has gone through a massive consolidation, with most of the vendors having left the market. At the same time, OEMs and customers have also consolidated. "Customers want to buy products from one vendor," he said.

Brocade's move into the HBA market now is interesting, Berry said. "We looked at it and wondered, 'What the heck?'" he said. "It's as if QLogic got into the switch industry now with one product."

Tom Curlin, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said that Brocade has to enter the HBA market in order to take advantage of the coming huge wave of server and storage virtualization thanks to companies like VMware, but that the move will not be an easy one.

Brocade realizes that if it wants to add value to the SAN fabric beyond what it can with its switch business, it needs intelligent HBAs in order to do things like route virtual servers, Curlin said.

"The HBAs manage the protocol," he said. "As we see an increasing move to virtual environments in how data centers are managed, instead of mapping physical storage to physical servers and physical servers to physical data volumes, it's hard to manage if you don't have the technology on the end points. But if you have the end points with HBAs, you can manage the entire path. And once you have the integrated virtualization path from the application to the storage, then there's lots of interesting things you can do to manage the virtual infrastructure."

However, said Curlin, Emulex and QLogic already have huge HBA library drivers that have gone through OEM qualifications. "If you think about the number of permutations you need to go through the qual process, it's complex," he said.

While Brocade is partnering with LSI on the 4-Gbit Fibre Channel HBAs, it will be a tough business to crack as LSI does not have the traction or the driver library that Emulex and QLogic have, Curlin said.

"The most LSI has ever done is put competitive pressure on pricing in some OEM wins," he said. "It's hard to get around Emulex's and QLogic's driver stack. It's hard for LSI to compete when their driver stack is much less tested. . . . OEMs are probably not interested in reviewing the 4-Gbit technology again, especially if Brocade is saying its 8-Gbit Fibre Channel will be all-new technology."

Brocade is also facing competitive pressure from QLogic, which in addition to its HBA line also produces Fibre Channel switches and directors thanks to its acquisition seven years ago of Ancor Communications, Curlin said. He said QLogic is doing well in the channel with its switches, and is gaining traction with OEMs including EMC and Hewlett-Packard.

"McData was the second source alternative to Brocade," he said. "Without McData there, OEMs are starting to look at QLogic."

Brocade acquired McData last August in a deal worth $713 million.

QLogic's success with OEMs will also have the effect of forcing Cisco to partner more aggressively with Emulex, Curlin said. "Brocade's entry into HBA's, in concert with QLogic's traction in switches, may lead Cisco to align more closely with Emulex as the only HBA vendor not competing with them in switches."