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Users mull over Brocade's WAFS options

Beth Pariseau, News Writer

One of the key questions still remaining following Brocade Communications Systems Inc.'s acquisition of McData Corp. centers around which WAFS

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technology it will choose to stick with -- its own partner, Tacit Networks Inc. (now owned by Packeteer Inc.), or McData's partner, Riverbed Technology Inc. The question is a thorny one, compounded by business relationships involving all four companies, and also, by differences between the products themselves.

Tacit: Replacing servers in the branch office

The Tacit product, marketed through Brocade for branch-office file sharing and wide area network (WAN) optimization, is a caching device, as well as a full-fledged file server that can also function as a domain controller, according to Tom Becchetti, senior infrastructure engineer IT, with a large financial services firm who asked that his company not be named.

According to Becchetti, his company has completely replaced Windows-based IT environments in two branch offices using the Tacit devices, which are used not only to serve Windows files from the central data center but also to direct file and print services.

"I can completely replace a computing environment in a remote office with Tacit," Becchetti said.

"We don't have a lot of data behind them, maybe 10 GB or 15 GB at each office," Becchetti noted. Even so, he said, the Tacit product is "a perfect fit" for his company, allowing it to centralize IT staff at the main data center and handle backups centrally.

Becchetti, who uses both Brocade switches and McData routers, said that he is confident Brocade will continue to at least interoperate with Tacit, even if they partner with Riverbed. But, he said, if at the next technology refresh Brocade drops support for the latest Tacit box, "I'd have to go through a review of what technologies are available that are compatible with all systems." He worries, however, that other products might not replace all the servers in the branch office environment.

Riverbed: Performance and easy configuration

Meanwhile, Riverbed users praise the product's versatility and relative ease of implementation -- Riverbed's Steelhead appliances automatically discover and begin working with other Steelhead boxes in the environment, and configuration only requires IP and gateway addresses.

Brocade and Riverbed user Travis McCulloch, systems engineer with Hilton Grand Vacation Co., said that he isn't concerned about replacing servers in the branch office or even particularly concerned with file sharing.

"The primary issue is increased performance," McCulloch said. The company is currently using the Steelhead to accelerate WAN traffic, including MAPI (Exchange data) and CIFS (Windows file system) data. McCulloch said he felt the Riverbed appliance is the fastest on the market even on "cold transfers" -- the first transfer of data the box has to handle when first installed, before it can simply send across changes.

Moreover, he added that he doesn't feel comfortable mounting a file server to a network appliance. "If you have an issue with a device that's also a domain controller with file access, then you're troubleshooting a router in order to have access to your files," McCulloch said. "I don't want to deal with that."

In his current configuration, McCulloch said, the only way users will lose access to their files is if a WAN link is down, "and we have a redundant connection in most locations," he said.

Becchetti admitted that he doesn't have this kind of redundancy set up with his Tacit boxes -- yet. "We're looking into getting more Tacit servers in for failover purposes."

According to McCulloch, whichever company Brocade chooses to partner with isn't a big deal for him -- after all, he's already using a nonpartner right now. He has McData router traffic passing through the Steelhead appliance, too, but said he made his purchasing decision independent of the company that partnered with the switch companies.

But, he cautioned, "If I had a Fibre line connected directly to the McData and then through the Riverbed appliance that was, say, routing iSCSI traffic for me, I would definitely want it to tie in with the storage vendor."

The partnership picture

Despite the technological debate between the two competitors, analysts say that Brocade's ultimate decision will probably be largely political and will have to negotiate the nooks and crannies of a complicated set of back stories for each company.

To begin with, Brocade had an investment to the tune of about $7.5 million in Tacit before Packeteer bought the company earlier this year. However, Brocade recovered the full investment after the acquisition, according to Brocade spokesperson Michelle Leach. Leach declined to comment on which partner Brocade was leaning toward overall.

But there's still the fact that Brocade has had an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) deal in place with Tacit since May 2005 -- and following the Packeteer acquisition, made a point (via press release) of renewing its OEM agreement to become the exclusive reseller of the Packeteer/Tacit WAFS product, rebranded Brocade Tapestry WAFS.

There are, however, compelling arguments for keeping Riverbed as well, analysts say, especially when it comes to customer base. Riverbed has racked up over 1,000 customers in its three-year history and remains the only standalone wide area data services (WADS) vendor on the market. In fact, Riverbed has been so successful that it is in the early stages of filing an initial public offering (IPO) -- which would be the first in the storage industry for many years.

Riverbed has several strong reseller deals of its own in place that hav contributed to its success -- the key ones being McData and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP). One analyst notes that if McData personnel are pushed out over the course of the merger, Tacit would unquestionably remain the WAFS partner for Brocade.

At this stage, it's anyone's guess which technology Brocade will decide to keep.