Will Brocade's Fabric Be a Shield in 2012?

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Brocade Communications Systems (NAS: BRCD) is the current market leader in fibre channel switches, the go-to technology for cannot-afford-to-fail network switching assignments. Fibre channel storage switches are also the most profitable items in Brocade's inventory.

Brocade sells those items, and its less profitable Ethernet switches, to original equipment manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) , IBM (NYS: IBM) , and Dell (NAS: DELL) -- though its relationship with Dell may have been compromised by Dell's acquisition of Force10 Networks last July.

Brocade's biggest competitors for those OEM sales are Cisco (NAS: CSCO) and Juniper Networks (NAS: JNPR) . But this coming year, the big competition among these three companies will be for market dominance in the latest technology, data center fabric switching.

So that's what Brocade's big job will be in 2012, getting into a three-way scrum with Cisco and Juniper for fabric-switching supremacy. Cisco got there first with its Nexus switch family, next was Brocade with its OneFabric, and Juniper finally brought its QFabric to market this past September.

Brocade sees cloud computing, and the fabric data center technology to make it work, as an opportunity to gives its two larger rivals a run for their money. One way the company is trying to get an edge is to make its system less proprietary. When a data center company switches over to one of these systems, it's a huge change. The less locked into a particular system, the more comfortable a company would be in taking that big gulp and writing the check.

For example, Brocade says its fabric plan is simpler than Juniper's. They both try to do the same thing: Turn the data center into just one huge virtual switch. But Juniper uses proprietary interconnects, whereas Brocade uses standard Ethernet connections. Brocade has also pointed out that Cisco's version must use its own servers hooked up to Cisco networking equipment. Brocade says its system can connect any computing gear to the network.

Brocade is coming off an up-and-down-and-up-again year, but it seems to be in decent financial shape. After acquiring Foundry in 2008, it has been paying down the debt associated with that deal. It also has about $400 million in cash and equivalents, and was able to generate $352 million in free cash flow this year.

It's going to be a tech-wide dogfight in 2012 for cloud computing dominance. To find out why this technology will have such a disruptive influence on the status quo, watch this special free video report.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorDan Radovskyowns shares of Cisco. The Motley Fool owns shares of Cisco Systems and International Business Machines, and has created a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Cisco Systems and Dell. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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