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New Switch Technology Grabs the Fabric Spotlight
Analyst reports, press articles and the blogosphere are full of commentary about new fabric architectures from Brocade (NASDAQ:BRCD), Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), and Juniper (NYSE:JNPR), designed for flatter scale-out in virtualized clouds, LAN/SAN convergence, and 40/100Gbs performance. Brocade was the first to introduce this class of fabric with the unveiling of its Brocade One architecture, VCS technology, and VDX switches in June of 2010. Cloud-optimized fabrics built with this class of technology connect virtual servers and their application workloads to other virtual servers, and to virtual LUNs in storage resource pools— all while maintaining secure, load-balanced client access to the Web, applications, and databases deployed on virtual machines.
Industry Busy with Infant CNA Technology
Cloud-optimized fabrics consist of a switched fabric and server end nodes, but the industry buzz about new fabrics excludes mention of network adapter innovation. Perhaps it’s because the industry has its hands full assimilating infant Converged Network Adapters (CNA) technology. Adoption of 10GbE CNAs started to ramp in 2010, mostly because server vendors bundled the technology with their products. However, the vast majority of CNA ports were deployed to provide a fatter 10GbE pipe to virtualized servers. The deployment of CNAs running FCoE for LAN and Fiber Channel SAN convergence has been slow because an investment in new FCoE switching infrastructure is an expensive prerequisite. According to IT Brand Pulse, in 2010, the Total Available Market (TAM) for 10Gb Ethernet LOM and Adapters grew to $327M, or 17.8% of the total network adapter market opportunity (pdf).

Fabric Adapters: A New Class of Super-CNA...Coming Soon
The silence surrounding new adapter technology to complement faster, flatter, and more virtualization-aware switched fabrics is about to end. IT Brand Pulse expects Brocade Communications—first to introduce the newest class of switched fabric—to be first to introduce a new class of adapter called a Fabric Adapter (FA). FA functionality is a superset of CNA functionality with the following new technology added: Simultaneous connectivity to Ethernet (LAN, NAS, iSCSI SAN and FCoE SAN) and Fibre Channel networks, 40Gb of adapter bandwidth supporting combinations of 10GbE, and 16Gb Fibre Channel ports; and Dynamic migration of virtual machines from one network protocol to another, e.g., FCoE to iSCSI.

Three years ago, when the first generation of CNAs was unveiled, my expectation was that by 2011 the adoption of FCoE would be well on its way. In 2008, I thought integrating Fibre Channel connectivity into a future CNA would burden the adapter with logic and cost that would hardly ever be used. Instead, the majority of IT departments have voted to bypass FCoE, and stay with servers connected to dedicated Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks via separate Ethernet CNAs and Fibre Channel HBAs. Given IT’s preference for separate Ethernet and Fibre Channel networks, convergence at the server using a Fabric Adapter than can support the existing networks should be immediately attractive to data center managers.

LAN and FC SAN Connectivity will be Shared by 3 Types of Adapters
Connecting servers to LANs and Fibre Channel SANs used to involve a NIC for LAN connectivity and a Fibre Channel HBA for Fibre Channel SAN connectivity. Today, 10GbE adapters from all the major adapter vendors are CNAs that can be deployed as a NIC alongside a Fibre Channel adapter, or if FCoE is used, as a converged adapter. Not all major adapter vendors have the Fibre Channel ASIC core and software stack needed to build an FA, so FAs will not completely replace the current generation of CNAs. IT Brand Pulse expects LAN and SAN connectivity to be shared by 3 types of adapters in the future...at least until the IT community shakes out a winning technology or two. The vendors capable of delivering FAs are vendors who already have Fibre Channel ASICs and software stacks. As a result, IT Brand Pulse is expecting Brocade, Emulex (NYSE:ELX) and QLogic (NASDAQ:QLGC) to provide FAs. For the same reason, Broadcom (NASDAQ:BRCM), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Mellanox (NASDAQ:MLNX) are not expected to develop Fabric Adapters.
Key Fabric Adapter Technologies
The new capabilities of a Fabric Adapter are made possible by two key technologies.
1. One ASIC Speaking Ethernet & Fibre Channel - 1st generation CNAs were dual-ASIC designs with an Ethernet ASIC, a Fibre Channel ASIC, and some logic tying them together. 2nd generation CNA ASICs were dual core; and now Fabric Adapters have a single ASIC core which can natively speak either protocol. Brocade is the first adapter vendor to integrate its Ethernet and Fibre Channel cores into one. The results are chips that can be used to converge traffic in a Fabric Adapter, or to converge traffic in a storage system. Storage Array vendors should love this technology because it frees space on their array controllers, and/or eliminates the need for daughter cards to configure Ethernet or Fibre Channel.
2. Virtual Fabric Links (vFL) - IT Brand Pulse defines a Virtual Fabric Link as a Fabric Adapter configured as a Virtual NIC, Virtual iSCSI HBA, Virtual Fibre Channel HBA or Virtual FCoE HBA—depending on the need of the Virtual Machine and the application the Virtual Machine is supporting. vFLs enable adapter consolidation while maintaining management granularity and isolation in virtual environments. The concept of virtual adapters is not new, but this is the first time this concept is taken to native Fibre Channel. vFL implementations will evolve in the near future to incorporate Single Root I/O Virtualization (SR-IOV) technology for greater scalability and hypervisor bypass. Fabric Adapters are expected to evolve in the long term to incorporate Virtual Ethernet Bridging (VEB) and Virtual Ethernet Port Aggregator (VEPA) technology to take the switching load off the virtualization software and improve overall system performance.
Brocade will Lead the Migration to FAs
Brocade has a clear vision for aligning I/O adapter capabilities with the evolution of data center fabrics. Clearly the data center is evolving towards private and public clouds, environments where only Fabric Adapters will be equipped with the performance, VM-awareness, and manageability for delivering I/O as a service.
Transforming Vision into Technology
IT Brand Pulse expects Brocade to be the first vendor to introduce Fabric Adapters sometime in 2011. When this happens, Brocade will deliver the:
  • 1st 16Gb Fibre Channel adapter technology
  • 1st Ethernet/Fibre Channel Dual Core adapter ASIC technology
  • 1st Virtual Fabric Link (vFL) technology
Turning Technology into Market Share
Brocade’s adapter business is growing rapidly, albeit on a small base. If FA technology proves to be an important inflection point for IT managers that like the idea of converging their server ports without the complication and cost of FCoE, then early FA incumbent Brocade will be in a great position to turn their industry-first technology into a bigger share of the $1.8B network adapter market.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
Source: Brocade First-to-Market With Fabric Adapter Technology