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Brocade launches denser 8 Gbps Fibre Channel director cards following Cisco gains

Dave Raffo, Senior News Director

Brocade Communications Systems Inc. today rolled out denser 8 Gbps blades for its DCX Fibre

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Channel Backbone directors to increase the port count and throughput on the devices as it faces a renewed challenge from Cisco Systems Inc. on the storage switching front.

Brocade's new FC8-64 blade is a 64-port card that allows 512 ports per chassis for its flagship DCX director (Cisco supports 528 ports per chassis on its MDS 9500) and 256 ports on its smaller DCX-4S backbone. The 8-slot DCX currently support 384 ports and the 4-slot DCX-4S holds 192 ports. All ports on the new cards support 8-gig bandwidth without requiring oversubscription, according to Brocade's director of product marketing Bill Dunmire.

Dunmire said Brocade's storage OEM partners such as EMC Corp., IBM, and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. are qualifying the new cards and he expects them to begin selling them in late 2010. Current DCX customers can swap out their blades for the new denser blades.

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The denser Fibre Channel blades comes as Brocade faces greater competition from Cisco, which pulled into a virtual tie in director market share last quarter, according to the Dell'Oro Group market research firm.

Dell'Oro's latest report shows Brocade had 50.1% of the $260 million worldwide Fibre Channel director revenue last quarter with Cisco at 49.7%, one quarter after Brocade enjoyed a 63% to 36% lead. Those numbers aren't shocking considering the vendors' recent earnings reports: Cisco said its Fibre Channel switch revenue doubled over the previous year, while Brocade's slipped 4%.

In the overall Fibre Channel switch market, Dell'Oro said Brocade has a 63% market share vs. 33% for Cisco and 4% for QLogic Corp. In the previous quarter, Brocade had a 70% share to Cisco's 24%.

Some financial analysts attribute Cisco's gains to its inclusion in the Vblock stacks sold as part of its VCE alliance with EMC and VMware Inc. Others in the industry say Brocade had pulled ahead earlier because it beat Cisco to market with 8-gig switches while Cisco thought the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) market would develop sooner, and Cisco caught up after upgrading its support to 8 gig.

Brocade has also been trying to beef up the Ethernet business it acquired from Foundry Networks to compete with Cisco in that space.

Brocade and Cisco say they remain fully committed to Fibre Channel switches, and expect 16 Gbps gear in late 2011.

Brocade's Dunmire called Cisco's share gain "an anomaly. There was a correction there because of a supply-chain challenge Cisco had for months."

Seamus Crehan, a Dell'Oro Group vice president, attributed Cisco's gains partly to that market correction. He said Cisco had supply constraints that prevented it from meeting demand in the previous quarter, while Brocade's storage OEM partners had too much inventory in that quarter.

But Crehan said Cisco has also done a better job of convincing customers of its commitment to Fibre Channel after several years of playing up FCoE.

"There has been better communication from Cisco to its customers and the marketplace of its intent to keep investing in Fibre Channel despite its concurrent FCoE thrust," he said. Crehan said "it's hard to say" if Cisco's early embracing of FCoE caused customers to doubt its commitment to 8 Gbps and 16 Gbps Fibre Channel, "but it correlated with a dip in its market share. Data seems to indicate there was some confusion about Cisco's path forward, and that seems to be cleared up now. Cisco has made it clear it will deliver products on multiple fronts, and MDS is still a key part of its strategy."

Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said Brocade's new denser DCX cards shows its commitment to Fibre Channel hasn't waned.

"With all the talk and hype around FCoE, this shows they're not neglecting their installed FC base. They're continuing to innovate," Laliberte said.

Laliberte said he expects Brocade and Cisco to continue to emphasize their Fibre Channel SAN strategy, even as FCoE looms and both build out their Ethernet switching as well.

"The FC market space is still a large and lucrative space, and nobody's leaving any time soon," he said. "Fibre Channel growth will be flattening out, but it's still a large market that people will invest in until they become comfortable with any other technology."

Dell'Oro Group's Crehan said the Fibre Channel switch market grew 1% over the previous quarter to $475 million last quarter, and the director market grew 8% sequentially to $260 million. Sequential growth is unusual in the first quarter of the year because the fourth quarter is almost always the strongest quarter of the year for overall storage sales.