Neptune in Greek mythology is the god of the sea, god of horses and the earth-shaker, the cause of earthquakes. Brocade is looking for its new director, code-named Neptune, to shake up the SAN landscape and, hopefully, knock Cisco's product strategy about a bit.

Neptune is to be launched in a few weeks time and Brocade is keeping it under wraps. But details are emerging.

First of all it uses the new 8Gbit/s Fibre Channel (FC) blades, 16-, 32- and 48 port. Secondly it uses the just announced 48000 interoperability features to unify Brocade's Silkworm and McData's i10K and Intrepid 6140 director-class products.

The addition of 8Gbit/s FC links is impressive but there is little evidence of demand for 8Gbit/s speed. Indeed, 4Gbit/s FC links are relatively recent. Perhaps Brocade is hoping that data growth will be so strong as to drive more traffic through SAN pipes, pressuring a speed increase.

The overall information about Neptune is that it is not just another Fibre Channel director with double the 384 port count of the Silkworm 48000.

It will be a multi-protocol storage networking engine and support 8- and 4Gbit/s FC, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCOE) and 10Gbit/s Ethernet. The core is a 768-port switching unit, i.e. two Silkworm 48000 cores, which can have blades inserted in its chassis. These perform storage fabric services such as ensuring particular quality of service, storage virtualisation, routing through ports, continuous data protection (CDP), data migration, replication and encryption.

Interestingly, Brocade is no expert in things like CDP and must partner with the relevant software suppliers. It also needs a standard blade platform that they can run on, say an x86 and Linux one.

Brocade has said it will expand into the host bus adapter (HBA) and Intelligent Server Adapter markets and the linkage between these server-housed devices and Neptune must be strong. The first ISA product is expected early next year. Brocade HBAS are here already.

In a sense Neptune is a huge storage pool controller and manager, and more. That storage can be accessed over Ethernet - think iSCSI - or over Fibre Channel - think existing storage area networks (SANs). It can be heterogeneous, meaning multi-vendor, comprise bit block buckets, file stores, virtual tape libraries and physical tape libraries with Neptune acting as the front-end controller for all of it.

Neptune will be able to be dropped in to existing SANs and remove a scalability ceiling they are facing at the moment as well as providing much more integrated iSCSI access.

It will also have good integration with virtual servers and Brocade is positioning it as the company's response to Cisco's Data Center 3.0 project. This is about having the network as the datacentre platform through which virtualised computer, storage and networking services are managed, provisioned and monitored. It is a very Sun-like message with the network, in effect, being the computer and providing compute, storage and networking infrastructure services to applications.

A true Brocade response to this would have it position Neptune as an equivalent datacentre control platform. That means providing a platform for storage services that are currently hosted by servers or by storage array controllers - think HDS - or tape automation devices (libraries). It means providing access to networking services currently provided by networking boxes. In a way it is a storage and network infrastructure intelligence land grab.

Such fancy fabric boxes downgrade storage devices to attached peripherals and network boxes to relatively dumb plumbing. The networking and storage suppliers with intelligent controllers and routers, etc, will resist this because they get their added value by layering intelligence onto commodity disks, tapes and network links.

By stepping out of the FC SAN fabric space Brocade is going to increase the competitive temperature concerning strategic decisions about where intelligence and control is located; in the network or in the boxes that use the network.

It would not be a surprise if some of Brocade's File Area Network (FAN) services were made available as bladed services in Neptune.

Another question concerns how Brocade will encourage servers to be connected in large numbers to its fabric? The hardware you need is called a host bus adapter (HBA) and Brocade is nowhere in the HBA market. Clearly iSCSI will help but the HBA is the key device. Control that and you can link it to your fabric. If you have the HBA server access plus a fabric plus storage control then you have an end-to-end virtualisation path and lots of promising things you can do.

The HBA market is dominated by Emulex and QLogic and it might even make sense for Brocade to try an acquisition of one of these companies and thus stake a real claim on the server HBA space. Both companies are working hard to make their HBAs be shared as virtual HBAs by VMware virtual servers, and Emulex has laboured particularly hard at this.

We can say that without a strong server connectivity presence the idea of Brocade being involved much in virtual server provisioning, failover, replication, disaster recovery, etc. is minimal.

The FC SAN market is maturing and its growth is going to be impacted by what happens with storage Ethernet connectivity and with virtual servers. Brocade has to break out of its SAN box and it looks like Neptune is a vital part of that strategy.

Neptune will ship in the first half of 2008 with revenue expected by mid-year, according to Brocade CEO Michael Klayko in Brocade's August 2007 earnings conference call: "In the first half of next fiscal year, absolutely."

Brocade has its customer conference next week, in Las Vegas (agenda here). Attendees will focus on "designing, building, and managing the Next-Generation Data Centre. Throughout the conference, you'll learn how new technologies and solutions can help you simplify data management, increase efficiency, and reduce your overall storage costs. You'll also hear how Brocade can help you prepare for continued growth."

Klayko gives the introductory keynote at 9.00am on Monday, October 22nd. He might open Neptune's kimono a little then. The next session is Brocade Technology Directions and the Next-Generation Data Center given by Don Jaworski, Brocade VP of Product Development. He might open it some more.