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Unified Networks And SUVs : First Generation Products Had Limited Appeal

IT Brand Pulse defines unified networking as the convergence of data, storage and server networking onto Converged Enhanced Ethernet (CEE). The company also defines the foundation of the first generation of unified networking products as 10 gigabit CEE.

Built on the CEE industry standard foundation, new 10 gigabit converged network adapters and switches are pouring into the market from traditional Ethernet giants Broadcom, Cisco and Intel; leading Fibre Channel vendors Brocade, Emulex and Qlogic; and pioneering InfiniBand vendors Mellanox and Voltaire. Add to that a slew of products from start-ups such as Blade Network Technologies, Chelsio and Neterion, and the race to unify the networking world is on, right? Well, not exactly.

To really unify a network today, data center managers would need their 10 gigabit CEE vendors to provide adapters and switches to immediately displace the combined capabilities of current best-in-class Ethernet, Fibre Channel and InfiniBand products.  This will take some time.

The emergence of unified networking reminds me of the introduction of the sport utility vehicle (SUV), a vehicle that eventually displaced the combined capabilities of best-in-class station wagons and light trucks. I'm way too young to remember this, but I hear the first generation of SUVs in the late 80s had limited appeal to car owners because they had only 2 doors and Spartan interiors like a truck. At the same time they had limited appeal to truck owners because either the engines were too small or the transmissions had the minimal towing capacity of a car. Twenty years later, the SUVs of today come with an almost unlimited number of options to satisfy executives, soccer moms or construction workers.

Analogous to the emergence of SUVs, the first generation of converged networking products have limited appeal. Ethernet vendors are bringing out converged networking products that are rich in data networking capabilities, Fibre Channel vendors are coming out with products that perform best in storage networks, and InfiniBand vendors are rolling out CEE products tailored for low-latency server networks. In some cases the products are capable of serving two out of the three networking arenas. For example, Brocade and Emulex CNAs are great solutions for unified storage and data networks with support for FCoE and iSCSI protocols running over Converged Enhanced Ethernet. And the recently announced Mellanox ConnectX-2 is an excellent solution for unified data and server networking with InfiniBand and Converged Enhanced Ethernet ports on a single CNA.

When the first generation of SUVs appeared, most buyers continued to buy station wagons and trucks. So the moral of this story is I expect most storage administrators to stick with their current Fibre Channel vendor for their first generation of 10 gigabit CEE switch or adapter.  Similarly, I expect most cluster administrators to stick with their current InfiniBand vendor for their first generation of low-latency CEE switch or adapter used in high performance computing environments. This is good news for Brocade, Emulex, Mellanox, QLogic and Voltaire shareholders. This end-user behavior should allow these companies to continue generating healthy cash flow from their traditional customer base and subsidize their migration into the mainstream Ethernet market.