Broadcom Enters the Converged Network Adapter War

by: Frank Berry

At their analyst day event on December 15, 2009, Broadcom (BRCM) officially entered the converged network adapter (CNA) war. At the event and in an independent lab test, the company demonstrated a 10 gigabit Ethernet adapter simultaneously running TCP/IP, iSCSI and Fibre Channel over Ethernet traffic on a single port. With multiple LAN and SAN protocols running on a single port, Broadcom leap-frogged the capability of its competition that must separate different types of traffic on different ports.

And the difference is significant. From an end-user standpoint, the primary benefits of CNAs are simplifying management and saving on hardware by consolidating multiple adapters into one. If Broadcom can sustain this advantage, end-users will have a solid reason to choose a CNA with a Broadcom ASIC on-board.

Broadcom has been arming major server vendors with 10 gigabit Ethernet ASICs for Network Interface Cards (NICs) and embedded LAN-on-Motherboard (LOM) since 2004. I expect their new generation of 10 gigabit chips with converged networking capabilities to reach end users later this year. I also expect the new chips to slide smoothly into the existing 10 gigabit pipeline to replace the rapidly growing volume of 10 gigabit chips flowing today. This phenomenon represents a huge difference in the path to CNA market share for Ethernet NIC vendors versus Fibre Channel Host Bus Adapter (HBA) vendors.

Converged Network Adapters from Fibre Channel HBA vendors require customers to interrupt their already interrupt-driven life, to research, architect and deploy a new class of networking gear. Today, they’re asking customers to leave behind their Fibre Channel adapter and switches, and move to new special Ethernet adapters and switches that carry Fibre Channel over Ethernet. As much as it might save some money, it’s missionary work and will take some time to create a large number of converts.

That’s why the Fibre Channel HBA vendors have had CNAs on the market for two years now, but shipped less than 20,000 ports in Q4CY09 – a fraction of over 30 million Ethernet host ports and about 750,000 Fibre Channel host ports that shipped last quarter.

In contrast, CNAs using new 10 gigabit Ethernet chips from vendors such as Broadcom are perceived by customers as just another 10 gigabit NIC – they just happen to have a few new features. When released, the new chips and adapters from 10 gigabit NIC vendors will work just fine with any customer’s installed Ethernet switches when used for typical LAN and iSCSI SAN traffic. It’s only when a customer considers running Fibre Channel over Ethernet that she has to think about it.

That’s why when the new chips from 10 gigabit adapter and LOM vendors such as Broadcom are available; they will quickly displace the existing 10 gigabit adapter and LOM volume that already exceeds 8 gigabit Fibre Channel HBA volume.

Bottom Line

Fibre Channel HBA vendors and Ethernet NIC vendors will square off for the next several years in a war for converged network adapter card and LOM ports in the data center. The war will be fought on three fronts: 1) CNAs used as Ethernet NICs, 2) CNAs used as iSCSI HBAs and 3) CNAs used as Fibre Channel HBAs. My opinion is that for an adapter vendor to thrive a few years from now, they must carve a defensible position in the NIC and iSCSI segments – the only segments with long term growth.

Today that points to Broadcom and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), the giants in the Ethernet NIC and LOM market, plus Emulex (NYSE:ELX), the company with a head-start on OEM design wins for CNAs used as NICs.

Disclosure: No positions