Much Ado About Something: Brocade’s Tech Day

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending Brocade’s Tech Day for Analysts and Press.  Brocade announced the new VDX 8770, discussed some VMware announcements, as well as discussed strategy, vision and direction.  I’m going to dig in to a few of the topics that interested me, this is no way a complete recap.

First in regards to the event itself.  My kudos to the staff that put the event together it was excellent from both a pre-event coordination and event staff perspective.  The Brocade corporate campus is beautiful and the EBC building was extremely well suited to such an event.  The sessions went on smoothly, the food was excellent and overall it was a great experience.  I also want to thank Lisa Caywood (@thereallisac) for pointing out that my tweets during the event were more inflammatory then productive and outside the lines of ‘guest etiquette.’  She’s definitely correct and hopefully I can clear up some of my skepticism here in a format left open for debate, and avoid the same mistake in the future.  That being said I had thought I was quite clear going in on who I was and how I write.  To clear up any future confusion from anyone:  if you’re not interested in my unfiltered, typically cynical, honest opinion don’t invite me, I won’t take offense.  Even if you’re a vendor with products I like I’ve probably got a box full of cynicism for your other product lines.

During the opening sessions I observed several things that struck me negatively:

  • A theme (intended or not) that Brocade was being lead into new technologies by their customers.  Don’t get me wrong, listening to your customers and keeping your product in line with their needs is key to success.  That being said if your customers are leading you into new technology you’ve probably missed the boat.  In most cases they’re being lead there by someone else and dragging you along for the ride, that’s not sustainable.  IT vendors shouldn’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming into new technologies by customers.  This doesn’t mean chase every shiny object (squirrel!) but major trends should be investigated and invested in before you’re hearing enough customer buzz to warrant it.  Remember business isn’t just about maintaining current customers it’s about growing by adopting new ones.  Especially for public companies stagnant is as good as dead.
  • The term “ Ethernet Fabric” which is only used by Brocade, everyone else just calls it fabric.  This ties in closely with the next bullet.
  • A continued need to discuss commitment to pure Fibre Channel (FC) storage.  I don’t deny that FC will be around for quite some time and may even see some growth as customers with it embedded will expand.  That being said customers with no FC investment should be avoiding it like the plague and as vendors and consultants we should be pushing more intelligent options to those customers.  You can pick apart technical details about FC vs. anything all day long, enjoy that on your own, the fact is two fold: running two separate networks is expensive and complex, the differences in reliability, performance, etc. are fading if not gone.  Additionally applications are being written in more intelligent ways that don’t require the high availability, low latency silo’d architecture of yester year.  Rather than clinging to FC like a sinking ship vendors should be protecting customer investment while building and positioning the next evolution.  Quote of the day during a conversation in the hall: “Fibre channel is just a slightly slower melting ice cube then we expected.’
  • An insistence that Ethernet fabric was a required building block of SDN.  I’d argue that while it can be a component it is far from required, and as SDN progresses it will be irrelevant completely.  More on this to come.
  • A stance that the network will not be commoditized was common throughout the day.  I’d say that’s either A) naïve or B) posturing to protect core revenue.  I’d say we’ll see network commoditization occur en mass over the next five years.  I’m specifically talking about the data center and a move away from specialized custom built ASICS, not the core routers, and not  the campus.  Custom silicon is expensive and time-consuming to develop, but provides performance/latency benefits and arguable some security benefits.  As the processor and off the shelf chips continue to increase exponentially this differentiator becomes less and less important.  What becomes more important is rapid adaption to new needs.  SDN as a whole won’t rip and replace networking in the next five years but it’s growth and the concepts around it will drive commoditization.  It happened with servers, then storage while people made the same arguments.  Cheaper, faster to produce and ‘good-enough’ consistently wins out.

On the positive side Brocade has some vision that’s quite interesting as well as some areas where they are leading by filling gaps in industry offerings.

  • Brocade is embracing the concept of SDN and understands a concept I tweeted about recently: ‘Revolutions don’t sell.’  Customers want evolutionary steps to new technology.  Few if any customers will rip and replace current infrastructure to dive head first into SDN.  SDN is a complete departure from the way we network today, and will therefore require evolutionary steps to get there. This is shown in their support of ‘hybrid’ open flow implementations on some devices.  This means that OpenFlow implementations can run segregated alongside traditional network deployments.  This allows for test/dev or roll-out of new services without an impact on production traffic.  This is a great approach where other vendors are offering ‘either or’ options.
  • There was discussion of Brocade’s VXLAN gateway which was announced at VMworld.  To my knowledge this is the first offering in this much needed space.  Without a gateway VXLAN is limited to virtual only environments. This includes segregation from services provided by physical devices.  The Brocade VXLAN gateway will allow the virtual and physical networks to be bridged. (http://newsroom.brocade.com/press-releases/brocade-adx-series-to-unveil-vxlan-gateway-and-app-nasdaq-brcd-0923542) To dig deeper on why this is needed check out Ivan’s article: http://blog.ioshints.info/2011/10/vxlan-termination-on-physical-devices.html.
  • The new Brocade VDX 8770 is one bad ass mamma jamma.  With industry leading latency and MAC table capacity, along with TRILL based fabric functionality, it’s built for large scalable high-density fabrics.  I originally tweeted “The #BRCD #VDX8770 is a bigger badder chassis in a world with less need for big bad chassis.” After reading Ivan’s post on it I stand corrected (this happens frequently.)  For some great perspective and a look at specs take a read: http://blog.ioshints.info/2012/09/building-large-l3-fabrics-with-brocade.html.

On the financial side Brocade has been looking good and climbed over $6.00 a share.  There are plenty of conversations stating some of this may be due to upcoming shifts at the CEO level.  They’ve reported two great quarters and are applying some new focus towards federal government and other areas lacking in recent past. I didn’t dig further into this discussion.

During lunch I was introduced to one of the most interesting Brocade offerings I’d never heard of: ‘Brocade Network Subscription”: http://www.brocade.com/company/how-to-buy/capital-solutions/index.page.  Basically you can lease your on-prem network from Brocade Capitol.  This is a great idea for customers looking to shift CapEx to OpEx which can be extremely useful.  I also received a great explanation for the value of a fabric underneath an SDN network from Jason Nolet (VP of Data Center Networking Group.)  Jason’s position (summarized) is that implementing SDN adds a network management layer, rather than removing one.  With that in mind the more complexity we remove from the physical network the better off we are.  What we’ll want for our SDN networks is fast, plug-and-play functionality with max usable links and minimal management.  Brocade VCS fabric fits this nicely.  While I agree with that completely I ‘d also say it’s not the only way to skin that particular cat.  More to come on that.

For the last few years I’ve looked at Brocade as a company lacking innovation and direction.  They clung furiously to FC while the market began shifting to Ethernet, ignored cloud for quite a while, etc.  Meanwhile they burned down deals to purchase them and ended up where they’ve been.  The overall messaging, while nothing new, did have undertones of change as a whole and new direction.  That’s refreshing to hear.  Brocade is embracing virtualization and cloud architectures without tying their cart to a single hypervisor horse.  They are positioning well for SDN and the network market shifts.  Most impressively they are identifying gaps in the spaces they operate and executing on them both from a business and technology perspective.  Examples of this are Brocade Network Subscription and the VXLAN gateway functionality respectively.

Things are looking up and there is definitely something good happening at Brocade.  That being said they aren’t out of the woods yet.  For them, as a company, purchase is far fetched as the vendors that would buy them already have networking plays and would lose half of Brocade’s value by burning OEM relationships with the purchase.  The only real option from a sale perspective is for investors looking to carve them up and sell off pieces individually.  A scenario like this wouldn’t bode well for customers.  Brocade has some work to do but they’ve got a solid set of products and great direction.  We’ll see how it pans out.  Execution is paramount for them at this point.

Final Note:  This blog was intended to stop there but this morning I received an angry accusatory email from Brocade’s head of corporate communications who was unhappy with my tweets.  I thought about posting the email in full, but have decided against it for the sake of professionalism.  Overall his email was an attack based on my tweets.  As stated my tweets were not professional, but this type of email from someone in charge of corporate communications is well over the top in response.  I forwarded the email to several analyst and blogger colleagues, a handful of whom had similar issues with this individual.  One common theme in social media is that lashing out at bad press never does any good, a senior director in this position should know such, but instead continues to slander and attack.  His team and colleagues seem to understand social media use as they’ve engaged in healthy debate with me in regards to my tweets, it’s a shame they are not lead from the front.

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