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Fabric Wars: Too Soon To Pick A Winner

While the networking giants--Cisco Systems, Brocade and Juniper Networks--battle it out for domination of the emerging fabric networking segment, a host of new competitors are nipping at their heels. Other networking companies--such as Avaya, Enterasys and Alcatel-Lucent--as well as computer companies edging into the networking space--such as HP and Dell--are among those joining the fray.

One analyst says the rivalry is so strong because each company is offering a largely proprietary approach to fabric and each wants to be the first to dominate the market. Juniper’s QFabric, for instance, is criticized as an expensive vendor lock-in play, still more a marketing plan than an actual product, though Juniper disagrees.

Fabric computing refers to networking technology in which a series of switches are controlled by network intelligence to be operated as one virtual switch, creating multiple paths for data to take through those switches. Fabric enables east-west traffic between and among switches and servers on the same network layer, in addition to the traditional north-south path among the core, aggregation and access layers.

While vendors differ in their technology and approach to market, maximizing east-west traffic "would be the single lighthouse they’re all trying to row to," says Zeus Keravalla, principal analyst with ZK research.

Fabric is essential to handling the massive increases in data workloads created by the explosion of virtualization and cloud computing. Fabric generally is based on one of two underlying technologies: shortest path bridging, a standard approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and Transparent Interconnect of Lots of Links (TRILL), a standard approved by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

But because fabric is relatively new, it’s hard to compare different vendor offerings. Dell’Oro Group, a research firm that specializes in the networking space, doesn’t yet track sales or market share numbers for fabric computing. "The industry really hasn't been comfortable defining what really is and isn't a fabric and how to count them," says senior director Alan Weckel.

Juniper has sought to distinguish itself from other vendors with technology it calls QFabric, unveiled in February 2011. QFabric has three basic components: the QFX 3500 line of 10 Gbits per second (Gbps) top-of-rack (ToR) switches, which began shipping in March 2011; an appliance called a Fabric Interconnect that links all the ToR switches; and Fabric Director, a server-based controller for the combined network that gives it that "one virtual switch" capability.

Since that introduction more than a year ago, Juniper has faced criticism from competitors and some analysts that with QFabric, as Keravalla put it, "their marketing was well ahead of product." Cisco also posted a video on You Tube making fun of Juniper’s inability to deliver QFabric, comparing Juniper to a pizza delivery service.

Juniper’s problem with QFabric is that it is a big change, requiring a substantial financial commitment for a customer to adopt it, says Eric Hanselman, networking research director for 451 Group.

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