Brocade's direction has been as clear as mud recently. The SilkWorm stuff has been fine - smaller and embedded switches, higher port count directors and the 4gig transition. WAFS is okay. Wide area file systems at first glance are understandable. Extend the SAN to branch offices - only it doesn't. It serves files to them. Is this a NAS head?

Then there's ARM, application resource management.What has provisioning blade servers with operating systems, middleware settings and applications got to do with a fabric switch vendor? OK, it has an intelligent switch platform that ARM runs on, but that's just a dedicated server. OK, the data resides on SAN arrays. But so do database records and Brocade isn't getting into database supply.

What is the company up to?

We tried to make an initial assessment here. Now Ulrich Plechschmidt, European sales director (and Latin America and the Middle East) has explained more about the new Brocade direction.

It wants to leverage its shared storage network infrastructure to solve application infrastructure problems. WAFS helps consolidate remote office data to a central data centre and uses network acceleration techniques so that the remote users appear to be getting files at local server speeds although they are coming from the datacentre.

Is Brocade a NAS supplier?
We see that's leveraging the storage network. Only, WAFS serves files, not blocks. So is Brocade now providing a NAS head on top of the SAN which users access through its switches and directors? Jay Kidd, Brocade's chief technology officer, said: "No. WAFS serves files from NAS devices in the data centre out to the remote offices. Brocade isn't going to produce NAS products in the same way we don't produce SAN arrays."

So Brocade has found a way to provide an Akamai content acceleration-type product for Windows files. There is a Linux version of the WAFS product available but it has reduced functionality. Kidd said Brocade has such a good relationship with Microsoft that it can use Windows Storage Server 2003 in the WAFs core and edge cache/accelerator boxes to provide great performance in transferring Windows application files, such as Word documents or Adobe PhotoShop files, up and down the link.

He also indicated that the main Unix variants would probably be supported in WAFS. We think that means Solaris and AIX, possibly HP-UX.

Brocade is not using its existing SAN fabric technology at all here. It has seen an opportunity, discussed it with its OEMS and resellers, and produced a product. Kidd indicated that Brocade's OEMs would probably introduce WAFS products over the next twelve months; not all of them perhaps, and with a mix of OEM branding (like EMC's Connectrix brand) and Brocade Tapestry branding.

Is Brocade a blade farm manager?
ARM, Tapestry's Application Resource Manager, is even more of a conundrum. It is based on technology from Therion which company Brocade funded and then acquired. The idea is that enterprises with 500 to 5,000 or more blades in a blade frm will need to alter their characteristics quite often. So it might need to change 50 of them from Windows servers running a SAP business application to Linux servers running a quarter-end financial package.

Wouldn't it be good if the shutdown, operating system installation, system parameters and application installation could all be automated. In fact you could have guaranteed clean files for this, so-called 'golden files', stored on the SAN and the software tool would use them to do a complete bare metal install on the selected blades.

That's what ARM does.

Plechschmidt said: "Customers want to automate this. It's much more appropriate than copying 500 reboot files over the LAN. Blade server vendors want to remove disks from their blades. THey get hot and they can fail." ARM runs on Brocade's intelligent switch technology, the Fabric Application PLatform (FAP) developed on the basis of its Rhapsody acquisition.

Right. Again IBM has verified with its OEM partners that there is a need for this, and there is. And it uses files on a Brocade-mediated SAN and it uses the SAN fabric to execute ARM and transfer data to the blade servers.

But Brocade isn't going to become a blade server mananagement company. Plechschmidt said that the ARM APIs mean that it can be integrated into system management products like HP's Open View and similar products.

He also said that Brocade isn't going to become a data protection supplier in the sense of producing backup applications.

The strategy is that, in a way, there isn't a strategy; meaning that Brocade is looking for opportunities to leverage its SAN infrastructure knowledge and installed base, along with its OEM relationships; Plechschmidt again: "We want to provide solution building blocks to our partners."

He says we should expect 'more exciting announcements' in the next few months.

The strategy is an opportunistic one. WAFS doesn't use any part of Brocade's existing switch/director-mediated fabric or the SAN arrays connected to it. ARM uses FAP and the fabric and the SAN arrays. There is no common thread other than the general use of a storage networking infrastructure.

Radical departure
Considering that Brocade was, until recently, a 100 percent SAN switch and director supplier, this is a radical departure. Founder and CEO Greg Reyes was replaced as CEO by Michael Klako, a sales guy, a few months ago. This co-incided with news that Brocade had mis-managed stock options for ex-employees such that they could execute stock options when they shouldn't. It caused four years of accounts to be re-stated and the latest quarterly SEC filing has been delayed. In fact the SEC has opened a formal investigation into this.

Yet, this writer cannot see a spat over stock options as being the reason to depose Reyes. It's been suggested by a person close to Brocade that there was a disagreement over Brocade's future direction. Reyes was more in favour of Brocade doing its own thing whilst an opposing view wanted to bring in technology from outside.

Reyes is now a consultant to Brocade, paid nearly a million dollars a year. Reports suggest the relationship has broken down with Brocade looking for ways not to pay Reyes' fee.

Now a class action suit has been launched against Brocade on behalf of disgruntled shareholders. The share price was over $8 when Reyes stepped down. It has since fallen to around $4, losing half its value.

Good technology
Against this background Brocade is launching new fabric products to meet strengthening competition from Cisco and a resurgent McDATA. The 48000 director doubles the port count and speed of the 128-port, 2Gbit/s 24000. A new low-end 200E switch has 4Gbit/s technology too and 8, 12 or 16 ports on demand. The whole fabric product line has nearly completed a 4Gbit/s transition.

There is no reason to think otherwise than that the WAFS and ARM products are enterprise class in quality, like the fabric hardware and softare. Yet Brocade sees inevitable commoditisation, meaning lower profits, in the SAN fabric hardware products. Fabric software applications can make up some of the gap. The rest is coming from tactical products in the general networked storage space.