Brocade vs Cisco. The dance around DataCentre networking

When looking at the network market there is one clear leader and that is Cisco. Their products are ubiquitous from home computing to enterprise Of course there are others like Juniper, Nortel, Ericson but these companies only scratch the surface of what Cisco can provide. These companies rely on very specific differentiators and, given the fact they are still around, do a pretty good job at it.

A few years ago there was another network provider called Foundry and they had some really impressive products and I that’s mainly why these are only found in the core of data-centres which push a tremendous amount of data. The likes of ISP’s or  Internet Exchanges are a good fit. It is because of this reason Brocade acquired Foundry in July 2008. A second reason was that because Cisco had entered the storage market with the MDS platform. This gave Brocade no counterweight in the networking space to provide customers with an alternative.

When you look at the storage market it is the other way around. Brocade has been in the Fibre Channel space since day one. They led the way with their 1600 switches and have outperformed and out-smarted every other FC equipment provider on the planet. Many companies that have been in the FC space have either gone broke of have been swallowed by others. Names like Gadzoox, McData, CNT, Creekpath, Inrange and others have all vanished and their technologies either no longer exist or have been absorbed into products of vendors who acquired them.

With two distinct different technologies (networking & storage) both Cisco and Brocade have attained a huge market-share in their respective speciality. Since storage and networking are two very different beasts this has served many companies very well and no collision between the two technologies happened. (That is until FCoE came around; you can read my other blog posts on my opinion on FCoE).

Since Cisco, being bold, brave and sitting on a huge pile of cash, decided to also enter the storage market Brocade felt it’s market-share declining. It had to do something and thus Foundry was on the target list.

After the acquisition Brocade embarked on a path to get the product lines aligned to each other and they succeeded with  their own proprietary technology called VCS (I suggest you search for this on the web, many articles have been written). Basically what they’ve done with VCS is create an underlying technology which allows a flat level 2 Ethernet network operate on a flat fabric-based one which they have experiences with since the beginning of time (storage networking that is for them). 

Cisco wanted to have something different and came up with the technology merging enabled called FCoE. Cisco uses this extensively around their product set and is the primary internal communications protocol in their UCS platform. Although I don’t have any indicators yet it might well be that because FCoE will be ubiquitous in all of Cisco’s products the MDS platform might be abolished pretty soon from a sales perspective and the Nexus platforms will provide the overall merged storage and networking solution for Cisco data centre products which in the end makes good sense.

So what is my view on the Brocade vs. Cisco discussion. Well, basically, I do like them both. As they have different viewpoints of storage and networking there is not really a good vs bad. I see Brocade as the cowboy company providing bleeding edge, up to the latest standards, technologies like Ethernet fabrics and 16G fibre channel etc whereas Cisco is a bit more conservative which improves on stability and maturity. What the pros and cons for customers are I cannot determine since the requirement are mostly different.

From a support perspective on the technology side I think Cisco has a slight edge over Brocade since many of the hardware and software problems have been resolved over a longer period of time and, by nature, for Brocade providing bleeding edge technology with a “first-to-market” strategy may sometimes run into a bumpy ride. That being said since Cisco is a very structured company they sometimes lack a bit of flexibility and Brocade has an edge on that point.

If you ask me directly which vendor to choose when deciding a product set or vendor for a new data centre I have no preference. From a technology standpoint I would still separate fibre-channel from Ethernet and wait until both FCoE and Ethernet fabrics have matured and are well past their “hype-cycle”. We’re talking data centres here and it is your data. Not Cisco’s and not Brocade’s. Both FC and Ethernet are very mature and have a very long track-record of operations, flexibility and stability. The excellent knowledge there is available on each of these specific technologies gives me more piece of mind than the outlook of having to deal with problems bringing the entire data centre to a standstill.


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About Erwin van Londen

Master Technical Analyst at Hitachi Data Systems
Brocade, Cisco, Fibre Channel, General Info , , ,