Opinion: A tale of two vendors

Remember the classic Dr. Seuss tale of the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax? The two identical creatures meet face-to-face, stopping in their tracks. But both are too proud and stubborn to change their course or move aside, so they just stand there, nose-to-nose, as seasons pass and technology evolves all around them.

Such is the predicament in which Fibre Channel switch vendors McData Corp. and Brocade Communications Systems Inc. may find themselves if the companies become mired in a copyright battle over switch technology that will only become less relevant as time passes.

The good old days of sure-sell, top-dollar Fibre Channel SAN (Storage Area Network) installations that set McData and Brocade on separate and singular paths are long gone. Now, industry watchdogs are crying that, for plaintiff McData, “trying to stay relevant by suing Brocade is a bad strategy.”

You bet it is. McData and Brocade may be leaders in director-class and fabric switch technology, but fewer IT shops are seeking SAN products that prepare you to scale out to infinity. More often, SANs are deployed to provide adequate-but-measured storage for specific projects, and a wave of preconfigured, pretested SANs of all sizes is hitting the market to answer this need.

Prebuilt SANs from Compaq Computer Corp., Dell Computer Corp., XIOTech Corp., and other companies come with the assurance that everything will work smoothly, and that incompatibility problems will be minimal. Moreover, prebuilt SANs typically have management software that handles much-needed activities such as mirroring, virtualization, and interfacing with databases and e-mail applications. By contrast, building a storage network from individual components means essentially gluing together switches, HBAs (Host Bus Adapters), and storage devices from different vendors.

Unless McData and Brocade can simplify integration issues and lower the cost of their switch products, the two could easily awake one day to find the market for their switches reduced to a handful of integrators reselling their products in preconfigured SANs. In this scenario, attempts to sell switches directly to customers would clash with their reseller channel, making matters worse.

The line from both McData and Brocade is that they’ll offer ports for all evolving data and storage technologies such as iSCSI and Infiniband. But both companies seem locked into complex Fibre Channel SAN mind-sets even though IP storage, advanced NAS (Network Attached Storage) technology, Windows-based file servers, and new terabyte-capacity direct-attached storage servers fill the storage market with simplicity.

McData and Brocade are about to blink. Brocade’s partnership with networking giant Cisco means Brocade knows that IP storage is changing the equation. And McData’s interoperability efforts with switch competitors such as QLogic Corp. indicate the company is ready to talk survival.

Are off-the-shelf SANs right for you? E-mail us at dan_neel@infoworld.com and mario_apicella@infoworld.com.