Brocade – Packet Spraying and SDN Integrating

Brocade kicked off our first double session at Network Field Day 4.  We’d seen them previously at Network Field Day 2 and I’d just been to Brocade’s headquarters for their Tech Day a few weeks before.  I was pretty sure that the discussion that was about to take place was going to revolve around OpenFlow and some of the hot new hardware the Brocade had been showing off recently.  Thankfully, Lisa Caywood (@TheRealLisaC) still has some tricks up her sleeve.

I hereby dub Lisa “Queen of the Mercifully Short Introduction.”  Lisa’s overview of Brocade hit all the high points about what Brocade’s business lines revolve around.  I think by now that most people know that Brocade acquired Foundry for their ethernet switching line to add to their existing storage business that revolves around Fibre Channel.  With all that out of the way, it was time to launch into the presentations.

Jessica Koh was up first to talk to me about a technology that I haven’t seen already – HyperEdge.  This really speaks to me because the majority of my customer base isn’t ever going to touch a VDX or and ADX or an MLXe.  HyperEdge technology is Brocade’s drive to keep the campus network infrastructure humming along to keep pace with the explosion of connectivity in the data center.  Add in the fact that you’ve got all manner of things connecting into the campus network, and you can see how things like manageability can be at the forefront of people’s minds.  To that end, Brocade is starting off the HyperEdge discussion early next year with the ability to stack dissimilar ICX switches together.  This may sound like crazy talk to those of you that are used to stacking together Cisco 3750s or 2960s.  On those platforms, every switch has to be identical.  With the HyperEdge stacking, you can take an ICX 6610 and stack it with an ICX 6450 and it all works just fine.  In addition, you can place a layer 3 capable switch into the stack in order to provide a device that will get your packets off the local subnet.  That is a very nice feature that allows the customer base to buy layer 2 today if needed then add on in the future when they’ve outgrown the single wiring closet or single VLAN.  Once you’ve added the layer 3 switch to the stack, all those features are populated across all the ports of the whole stack.  That helps to get rid of some of the idiosyncrasies of some of the first stacking switch configurations, like not being able to locally switch packets.  Add in the fact that the stacking interfaces on these switches are the integrated 10Gig Ethernet ports, and you can see why I’m kind of excited.  No overpriced stacking kits.  Standard SFP+ interfaces that can be reused in the event I need to break the stack apart.

I’m putting this demo video up to show how a demo during your presentation can be both a boon and a bane.  Clear you cache after you’re done or log in as a different user to be sure you’re getting a clean experience.  The demo can be a really painful part when it doesn’t run correctly.

Kelvin Franklin was up next with an overview of VCS, Brocade’s fabric solution.  This is mostly review material from my Tech Day briefing, but there are some highlights here.  Firstly, Brocade is using yet a third new definition for the word “trunk”.  Unlike Cisco and HP, Brocade refers to the multipath connections into a VCS fabric as a trunk.  Now, a trunk isn’t a trunk isn’t a trunk.  You just have to remember the context of which vendor you’re talking about.  This was also the genesis of packet spraying, which I’m sure was a very apt description for what Brocade’s VCS is doing to the packets as they send them out of the bundled links but it doesn’t sound all that appealing.  Another thing to keep in mind when looking at VCS is that it is heavily based on TRILL for the layer 2 interconnects, but it does use FSPF from Brocade’s heavy fibre channel background to handle the routing of the links instead of IS-IS as the TRILL standard calls for.  Check out Ivan’s post from last year as to why that’s both good and bad.  Brocade also takes time to call out the fact that they’ve done their own ASIC in the new VCS switches as opposed to using merchant silicon like many other competitors.  Only time will tell how effective the move to merchant silicon will be for those that choose to use it, but so long as Brocade can continue to drive higher performance from custom silicon it may be an advantage for them.

This last part of the VCS presentation covers some of the real world use cases for fabrics and how Brocade is taking an incremental approach to building fabrics.  I’m curious to see how the VCS will begin to co-mingle with the HyperEdge strategy down the road.  Cisco has committed to bringing their fabric protocol (FabricPath) to the campus in the Catalyst 6500 in the near future.  With all the advantages of VCS that Brocade has discussed, I would like to see it extending down into the campus as well.  That would be a huge advantage for some of my customers that need the capability to do a lot of east-west traffic flows without the money to invest in the larger VCS infrastructure until their data usage can provide adequate capital.  There may not be a lot that comes out of it in the long run, but even having the option to integrate the two would be a feather in the marketing cap.

After lunch and a short OpenStack demo, we got an overview of Brocade’s involvement with the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) from Curt Beckmann.  I’m not going to say a lot about this video, but you really do need to watch it if you are at all curious to see where Brocade is going with their involvement with OpenFlow going forward.  As you’ve no doubt heard before, OpenFlow is really driving the future of networking and how we think about managing data flows.  Seeing what Brocade is doing to implement ideas and driving direction of ONF development is nice because it’s almost like a crystal ball of networking’s future.

The last two videos really go together to illustrate how Brocade is taking OpenFlow and adopting it into their model for software defined networking (SDN).  By now, I’ve heard almost every imaginable definition of SDN support.  On one end of the spectrum, you’ve got Cisco and Juniper.  A lot of their value is tied up in their software.  IOS and Junos represent huge investments for them.  Getting rid of this software so the hardware can be controlled by a server somewhere isn’t the best solution as they see it.  Their response has been to open APIs into their software and allow programmability into their existing structures.  You can use software to drive your networking, but you’re going to do it our way.  At the other extreme end of the scale, you’ve got NEC.  As I’ve said before, NEC is doubling down on OpenFlow mainly for one reason – survival.  If they don’t adapt their hardware to be fully OpenFlow compliant, they run the risk of being swept off the table by the larger vendors.  Their attachment to their switch OS isn’t as important as making their hardware play nice with everyone else.  In the middle, you’ve got Brocade.  They’ve made some significant investments into their switch software and protocols like VCS.  However, they aren’t married to the idea of their OS being the be all, end all of the conversation.  What they do want, however, is Brocade equipment in place that can take advantage of all the additional features offered from areas that aren’t necessarily OpenFlow specific.  I think their idea around OpenFlow is to push the hybrid model, where you can use a relatively inexpensive Brocade switch to fulfill your OpenFlow needs while at the same time allowing for that switch to perform some additional functionality above and beyond that defined by the ONF when it comes to VCS or other proprietary software.  They aren’t doing it for the reasons of survival like NEC, but it offers them the kind of flexibility they need to get within striking distance of the bigger players in the market.

If you’d like to learn more about Brocade, you can check out their website at http://www.brocade.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @BRCDComm.

Tom’s Take

I’ve seen a lot of Brocade in the last couple of months.  I’ve gotten a peek at their strategies and had some good conversations with some really smart people.  I feel pretty comfortable understanding where Brocade is going with their Ethernet business.  Yes, whenever you mention them you still get questions about fibre channel and storage connectivity, but Brocade really is doing what they can to get the word out about that other kind of networking that they do.  From the big iron of the VDX to the ability to stack the ICX switches all the way to the planning in the ONF to run OpenFlow on everything they can, Brocade seems to have started looking at the long-term play in the data networking market.  Yes, they may not be falling all over themselves to go to war with Cisco or even HP right now.  However, a bit of visionary thinking can lead one to be standing on the platform when the train comes rumbling down the track.  That train probably has a whistle that sounds an awful lot like “OpenFlow,” so only time can tell who’s going to be riding on it and who’s going to be underneath it.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Brocade was a sponsor of Network Field Day 4.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 4.  In addition, Brocade provided me with a gift bag containing a 2GB USB stick with marketing information and a portable cell phone charger. They did not ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.