Has Brocade Seen Interop Light?

After major customer blowup, Brocade is working with other vendors to advance interoperability

July 29, 2003

4 Min Read
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Quel scandale! In the past few months, Fibre Channel switch leader Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) has been quietly conspiring with other vendors to get their gear to talk natively to Brocade's own switches -- a move that would mark a shift in strategy by Brocade toward openness.

Brocade, which has had a reputation for trying to protect its turf by inhibiting interoperability with its Fibre Channel switches, is now cooperatively working behind the scenes with Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), McData Corp. (Nasdaq: MCDTA), and QLogic Corp. (Nasdaq: QLGC), according to several industry sources.

Last week, Byte and Switch reported that QLogic appeared to have reverse-engineered Brocade's native-mode operation (see QLogic Learns Brocade Lingo). In fact, say industry sources familiar with both companies, this is the result of joint development work by Brocade and QLogic.

The Brocade/QLogic interoperability project started about three months ago, when a major New York financial institution that is an IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) customer was attempting to connect an IBM BladeCenter blade server system to its existing Brocade SAN. QLogic's Fibre Channel switch silicon is embedded onto a blade on the BladeCenter (see QLogic FC Ships in IBM Blades).

The problem is that, ordinarily, certain advanced Brocade features become disabled when Brocade switches are connected to third-party switches in "interop mode" using FC-SW-2, the industry standard for Fibre Channel. One of the features lost when the QLogic-enabled BladeCenter was plugged into Brocade's SAN was hardware-enforced World Wide Name (WWN) zoning, a security feature that isolates zone configurations from physical changes."The customer said, 'This is bullshit. IBM -- go fix it,' " according to an industry source, who did not wish to be identified.

As a result, IBM gave Brocade and QLogic their marching orders. "We have encouraged our partners to work together to solve this customer request," says Rob Sauerwalt, senior product manager of blade architecture at IBM.

However, QLogic's implementation of Brocade's native mode doesn't completely work yet, according to our source. "There are a couple of niggling things," he says. But based on the positive customer feedback from its work with QLogic, Brocade is now "actively working in the background" with other vendors, including Cisco and McData, to allow their switches to work natively with Brocade gear, he says.

Has Brocade finally seen the light? Or is it being dragged to the interoperability table against its will?

If the company is, in fact, "actively working" to improve its interoperability with other vendors, it would be a notable change from its attitude even as recently as this spring, when it refused to participate in a switch demo at Storage Networking World in Phoenix. "We are not seeing that much demand for multivendor fabrics among customers today," a Brocade spokeswoman said in March (see Brocade Snubs Multivendor Demo). Enter a disgruntled financial customer with just such a demand, and -- presto! -- Brocade is singing a different tune.But there are probably other reasons for Brocade's change of heart, starting with the mounting competitive threat from Cisco: History shows that companies that pursue proprietary networking technologies are heading down a cul de sac (see FC Market Gets Rattled).

Another reason may be that Brocade's corporate culture seems to be evolving toward a policy of openness with the rest of the industry after its acquisition of Rhapsody Networks last fall (see Brocade Scoops Up Rhapsody). Rhapsody had been philosophically inclined to partner with other software and hardware vendors to increase the value of its intelligent switching platform. Several of the startup's executives are now sprinkled throughout the upper ranks at Brocade, including Mike Klayko, former CEO of Rhapsody, who is VP of marketing; and Dave Stevens, Brocade's VP of strategic alliances and business development, who held a similar position at Rhapsody.

Whatever the cause, if Brocade is really attempting to play well with others, it's a step forward -- and away from the company's previous vision of a single vendor asserting its control over the rest of the industry.

Todd Spangler, US Editor, Byte and Switch

A detailed examination of the SAN switch segment is included in the current Byte and Switch Insider report -- "Fibre Channel Market Update" -- which is available here

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