Don’t change that (fibre) channel

Brocade has gone Hollywood.

No, the San Jose, Calif., company isn’t moving south anytime soon but Kumar Malavalli says the film industry is a growing segment of the storage area network market.

Malavalli is one of the founders of Brocade and one of the inventors of its fibre channel

technology, the engine behind many storage area networks (SAN) products. He works in the U.S., but is still a Canadian citizen, having immigrated from India in 1974. The company is still the leader in the market — with an 80 per cent share, he claims — and he is helping to pass along his good fortune by mentoring 10 Silicon Valley start-ups. “”Individually they’re small, but together they look like a large company,”” he says.

Malavalli spoke with Computing Canada recently about the future of fibre channel, companies that might make good acquistisions, and why he isn’t afraid of iSCSI.


Computing Canada: How integral is fibre channel to SANs?

Kumar Malavalli: If you open the hood of any SAN, the engine inside is the fibre channel. It’s not only transportation of data, but also the management of data. When you’re deploying a storage area network, you have to look at data movement and data management. Both are possible using fibre channel protocol without losing any performance. That’s the whole idea. The premise of fibre channel is to do almost everything in the hardware itself. There is very little software in the data path, so you get the maximum performance and the highest level of the robustness. In the data centres, the requirements are very stringent. You can’t afford to lose even one packet of data.

CC: How much competition is there in the fibre channel market?

KM: Brocade owns nearly 80 per cent of market share, as far as storage network infrastructure is concerned. That is the basic part. But if you want to build a storage area network, you also need the hosts and the servers and the storage subsystems that are connected to the Brocade networking infrastructure. Between the companies such as IBM, Sun, HP and the storage systems from EMC, StorageTek — with the storage infrastructure in the middle, provided mainly by Brocade and also to some extent by companies like McData and Qlogic. There are a lot of companies involved in the plumbing part of it (such as Veritas and Tivoli).

CC: What about Cisco?

KM: They just recently got into storage because they know the storage market is going to expand exponentially in the next few years and they couldn’t ignore it any further. Cisco has endorsed fibre channel as the main protocol to run storage area networks.

CC: Would you consider some of the smaller companies in the fibre channel space to be potential takeover targets?

KM: It’s hard to say, but there are a lot of small companies — not so much in the switching area. There are two companies who are quite well advanced and quite big in this big: Brocade and McData. Now Cisco is getting into the fray. I don’t see any small companies, unless something is coming out of the woodwork. But there are a lot of small companies which are developing different networking products (for storage), filling different niches. They could be the takeover targets, but I don’t see any major switch companies or server companies or storage subsystem companies becoming targets for takeovers.

CC: What would these potential takeover targets be developing that could add to your portfolio?

KM: There are certain areas where small niches are being taken over, particularly in the area of storage management that are targetable. For example, if you look at storage management, you’re not just talking about infrastructure management, but you also have to worry about the data management. If there is Company A coming out with resource management and Company B coming out with capacity management software, it might be in the interest of Veritas to acquire them.

CC: How will the rise of iSCSI affect you?

KM: iSCSI has some capabilities that fibre channel cannot offer. For example, if you’re looking at the long distance connection, and also if the requirements are not stringent. If you’re not looking at very high throughout, if you’re worried about the price, then iSCSI comes into the picture. But that alone cannot solve the data centre problem. If you look at the data centre, you’re looking at very high throughput and very robust systems. You can’t afford to lose one packet. iSCSI and fibre channel address far different sections of SAN systems.

CC: Could these two technologies ever work together in some capacity?

KM: iSCSI is still on the drawing board. When you start a protocol, it’s not enough to just take care of the data movement. You also have to take care of the management aspect. iSCSI is at least one or two years away. Then we are going to see evidence of iSCSI products to come play a role in long distance and low cost areas to work synergistically with fibre channel.

CC: Are there other competing technologies out there in terms of providing storage infrastructure?

KM: The only competing technology I can see on the horizon is iSCSI. Infiniband tried, but it failed miserably. It got sandwiched between iSCSI and fibre channel. Fibre channel made inroads and became the protocol of choice in data centres. The only thing Infiniband is good at, and may be deployed in the next couple of years, is to do server clustering.

CC: What vertical markets are you going after with fibre channel?

KM: The main markets right now are financial and insurance companies. That’s still by far the largest market. But also storage area networks are being deployed in government agencies, and deployed, believe it or not, in Hollywood production. If you look at recent special effects movies, the special effects are all being made in post-production studios in Hollywood. There’s a fibre channel-based SAN behind it. That’s not a huge market, but it’s one of the verticals.

Wal-Mart and K-Mart, they have all implemented SANs. The transportation industry — United Airlines and American Airlines have implemented storage area networks. I count FedEx as also a transportation company. Oil exploration is another (market).

CC: What about health care? It seems to have a growing need for storage.

KM: Recently Brocade deployed a SAN to a health agency in Milwaukee. They implemented a huge SAN consisting of multiple terabytes. Not only does in reduce the cost of health care, but also increases access to data. Health care is becoming another industry that will be deploying SAN.

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