Banking on flexibility

New Brocade switches bridge entry-level and corporate SANs

Did you enjoy Storage Networking World Spring? I did. At times it was exhausting, but I definitely got a lot out of the conference. I probably shook more hands than a politician at a fund-raising dinner, but I also did a lot more listening than your average wonk.

The highlight, of course, was sitting down in front of vendors whom I typically only speak to by phone. In my meetings I heard many interesting stories and realized that if you listen carefully and with an open mind, even the most warily orchestrated marketing spiel can reveal a lot more about the company than the author of the presentation had in mind.

A common objective or resolution openly expressed or implied by most vendors is the willingness to change their products, often dramatically, to meet customers’ demands.

True, the value of pleasing customers should be imprinted in the DNA of any company. After all, that’s why they are in business, right? Well, not quite. Some changes seen in the storage market go way beyond what’s considered normal adjustment to competition or customer demand in the rest of the world.

For example, if non-IT companies made the same commitment to flexibility that I see in storage companies, we would soon be able to buy a car from Boeing or to fly on Ford manufactured aircrafts -- both scary propositions.

Let me illustrate what I mean with an example. Recently, FC (Fibre Channel) switch manufacturer, Brocade, announced affordable and simplified models of its switches with the aim of bringing typically more-costly FC technology to the masses. Perhaps, after similar announcements from other storage vendors, Brocade’s move didn’t come as a surprise. Nevertheless, because many critics depict Brocade as an inflexible advocate of canonical FC deployments, its recent opening to the entry-level market with a line of less expensive and easier-to-use switches is big news.

In essence, Brocade introduced two new SilkWorm 2Gbps models for the SMB (small to midsize business) market, the eight-port 3250 and the 16-port 3850. Both are watered-down versions of its high-end switches. How watered down? you might ask. Brocade says two 3250s can be put together in a fabric, allowing configurations with a certain degree of resiliency, but limiting the expansion to a more complex mesh. Similarly, using the 3850 line, you can combine only up to four switches. In other words, the switches lack what you get with the full versions.

The new switches have other limitations. For example, although you can use ISLs (inter-switch links) to connect switches together, trunking -- jargon for combining multiple links for performance and resilience -- is not possible. 

Now the good news: Those limitations are not hard-wired inside the switch and customers can remove them by purchasing optional features such as trunking, fabric security, and performance monitoring from Brocade as add-ons, activated by a software key. 

So in essence, SMBs can start with a basic set of options and add more as needed. This approach preserves their initial investment and simplifies the transition to a more sophisticated fabric management.

Will the new switches meet the demands of customers and partners? Apparently yes, at least for the moment. In fact, I already heard from Hewlett-Packard, a major OEM of Brocade's switches, that these new models will become part of a soon-to-be-released, entry-level SAN offering, based on SATA (Serial ATA) drives.

Incidentally, HP’s mixing of SATA drives and FC connectivity in the new StorageWorks MSA models is yet another example of vendor willingness to change its products to meet customer demands. Another example of an unconventional configuration is NetApp’s mingling of iSCSI transport with FC drives in its FAS200 line. 

But back to Brocade: OEMs get to price the new switches, so it is unclear how much each will cost. HP will offer the 3250 as a component of its new StorageWorks MSA line for a price starting at $5,000. Pricing and availability aside, this Brocade example illustrates the lengths to which vendors will go to adapt their products to meet the varying needs and wants of customers.

Now back to my metaphor: Imagine an automobile that is really an aircraft whose wings can be released when needed by purchasing that functionality. Now that would be cool.

Stay tuned for more on SNW next week