By Dave Simpson
—In a move that came as a surprise to many, Brocade announced its entry into both the Fibre Channel and iSCSI host bus adapter (HBA) markets during a financial call yesterday.
At first blush, it seemed like a real head-scratcher: Can the Fibre Channel HBA market sustain a new player? What can Brocade bring to the party that market leaders Emulex and QLogic don't already have? Not to mention the fact that Emulex and QLogic have more than an 80% share of the Fibre Channel HBA market. But the story became clearer when it was revealed that rather than entering the market with its own technology, Brocade is re-branding/re-selling Fibre Channel HBAs from LSI (which holds the number-three spot in the Fibre Channel HBA market).
The Dell'Oro Group market research firm expects the Fibre Channel HBA market to top $1 billion this year.
But many observers conjectured that the announcement was not so much about Brocade seeking to boost its revenues via HBA sales, or about gaining market share but, rather, it was more about being able to tell a soup-to-nuts SAN infrastructure story to gain a competitive advantage over its biggest rival—Cisco. In other words, Brocade might be shooting BBs at Emulex and QLogic off the side of the boat, but its big guns are still aimed where they've always been: at the 800-pound networking gorilla.
At least that's the take of one new-found competitor (and partner): "Brocade needs ways to compete against their biggest competitor, and this move gives them a bit of a differentiator," says Mike Smith, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Emulex, "but it's not like there's a new player in the market. We do not expect this to have an impact on our business, and we expect to continue to partner with Brocade on bringing best-of-breed solutions to market."
Brocade's 4Gbps Fibre Channel HBAs are available in single- or dual-port models (part numbers BRE041 and BRE042, although model designations may change when the HBAs begin shipping next month) and are compatible with the PCI-Express host bus. Although Brocade's initial foray into Fibre Channel HBAs is based on LSI products, future generations (e.g., 8Gbps HBAs) will be based on Brocade's own intellectual property, according to Tom Buiocchi, Brocade's vice president of worldwide marketing, and will have more competitive differentiators.
One aspect of Brocade's move into the HBA market that will prove interesting is its effect on the channel. If you're a VAR or integrator, and HBAs are part of your business, we'd like to hear your opinion. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to Buiocchi, Brocade's distribution strategy for its HBAs will be the same as its switches: large OEMs (which could potentially include EMC, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard), and the channel (VARs and integrators). Approximately 85% of the company's switches go through OEMs, while 15% go through the channel. In addition, Brocade will offer the HBAs via its Website.
Brian Garrett, an analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, notes that Brocade's HBA play is significant not in its short-term implications but, rather, in its long-term ramifications. "Besides the potential for improved pricing and a reduction in the number of vendors that customers have to deal with, Brocade could bring a lot to the party over time," say Garrett. "Having a footprint at the server end of the wire in the form of Fibre Channel HBAs, along with an existing footprint within the fabric, provides Brocade with an end-to-end platform for the delivery of intelligent services running in the storage network, including online migration, virtualization, and replication. The intelligent ASIC technology that Brocade has honed over the years at the port level within switches can be re-purposed at the server end of the wire within HBAs.
"With that said," Garrrett continues, "Brocade has a new challenge ahead as they start supporting the server end of the wire. Supporting HBA drivers is a pain for end users and vendors alike. Brocade needs to invest in a new level of infrastructure, expertise, and support services to help customers deal with the qualification, support, and upgrade of HBA driver software."
In addition to Fibre Channel HBAs, Brocade announced iSCSI HBAs based on technology gained in the company's acquisition of Silverback Systems last year. The model 2110 iSCSI initiator HBAs are compatible with Windows and Linux platforms.
In the call yesterday, Brocade also outlined plans for next-generation Intelligent Server Adapters, which company officials said will integrate HBA technology with SAN switching technology. Those products will include 8Gbps Fibre Channel HBAs and 10Gbps Ethernet adapters and will be available next year.