This syndicated post originally appeared at Network World Zeus Kerravala.

Breaking down Brocade’s new VDX 6940 fabric switch.

While the networking industry has gone crazy over software defined networks (SDNs), Brocade has been one of the few vendors that have continued to evolve their fabric portfolio. Customers looking to improve the agility and level of automation do not need to make the jump to an SDN – instead, an Ethernet fabric can be used to accomplish these goals and provide an excellent foundation for a future SDN deployment.

Earlier this month, Brocade announced a new fabric switch, the VDX 6940. The new switch set the current high water mark in the industry with respect to port density for a fixed form factor switch. The 6940-36Q is a 1RU switch with 36×40 Gig-E connections or 144×10 Gig-E connections (assuming breakouts are used). The 6940-144S is a 2RU switch with 96×10-Gig-E ports and either 12×40 Gig-E or 4×100 Gig-E ports. Both switches have a massive amount of capacity, making them ideal for on-demand scaling of a fabric by adding capacity to a spine horizontally as the number of leaf switches increases.

Also, by using Brocade’s VCS Logical Chassis feature, customers can manage up to 48 of these switches as a single, logical switch. This can be used to create resilient fabrics by eliminating any single point of failure. Brocade has also automated provisioning capabilities so any box dropped into an existing fabric can be configured in less than a minute.

Another aspect of the VDX 6940 I like is that it strikes a good balance between buffering and latency. The low-latency, non-blocking architecture ensures line rate performance for all packet sizes and the on-chip buffers provide excellent throughput for applications like Hadoop.

The new switch is an excellent example of why hardware and ASICs still matter in networking. All I hear about now is how everything is moving to software but not everything is best run in software. I don’t want to diminish the role of software and innovation at that layer, which was certainly an important part of this launch.

Software gives Brocade customers a way of integrating VDX into the rest of the data center ecosystem through programmability and DevOps integration. Software is also the primary factor for SDN integration and orchestration, such as the capability of being a distributed VXLAN gateway, scripting, OpenStack and Cloud stack interoperability.

However, the silicon switching ASIC is best for anything that is related to device performance or packet processing, such as the dynamic buffering capabilities and cut-through architecture that are on chip. Brocade could never achieve its line rate performance if these features were enabled purely in software.

The control plane of the VDX 6940 and other Brocade products is dictated by hardware, such as the processor and memory. This ensures that the hardware itself is tuned for the box and its purpose in the data center. It’s a little like a performance car. One wouldn’t put a Porsche engine in a car designed for commuting. You just wouldn’t get the performance out of the engine without the rest of the car being tuned for it.

Given the momentum behind SDNs today, I’m sure software will continue to steal the headlines, but when evaluating network infrastructure it’s important to remember that optimized performance is only achieved when the right balance of software, hardware, and silicon is struck.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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