Switches challenge routers

Federal agencies are turning increasingly to switching equipment and less to traditional router-based networks in their quest to meet users' seemingly boundless appetite for bandwidth according to resellers manufacturers and federal network managers.

Although the router market is thriving in the federal government and elsewhere vendors and users recently have noted a growing demand for switching products - especially on Ethernet and Fast Ethernet networks - that eventually could eat into router sales.

Jocelyn Hsu operations director on the Air Force's Integration for Command Control Communications Computers and Intelligence (IC4I) contract at SRA International Inc. said federal users have shown substantial interest in the switching equipment offered on the contract. SRA's IC4I contract offers switches from 3Com Inc. Fore Systems Inc. and even Cisco Systems Inc. the leader in the router market.

"We see more and more people requesting switching instead of routers " Hsu said. "We're making those a priority on the contract."

Compared with routers which basically act as interpreters to interconnect various local-area networks running different protocols switches bring greater performance and bandwidth to the desktop. As a result agencies such as the Customs Service are using switching to enhance their router-based networks.

"The biggest advantage is that switches provide dedicated switched media for each end-user device instead of shared " said Mike Larkin a computer specialist at Customs. "And as a result it provides more bandwidth to the desktop. And switches offer cut-through technology - instead of store-and-forward - for higher performance. Switch pricing has dropped making switches comparable media to shared environments like smart hubs and low-end routers."

"We are seeing a big trend of introducing switching technology into networks whether it's Ethernet Asynchronous Transfer Mode or both " said Richard Bibb director federal operations at Fore Systems. "The migration is happening in the government and in the commercial [market] as well. That's the case in networks that are predominately [Internet Protocol] and those that aren't."

Fore Systems which got its start developing ATM switches for the Defense Department offers both Ethernet and ATM switches. Bibb said Fore Systems' customers have expanded beyond DOD to include more "traditional" users such as civilian agencies.

Consequently Bibb and others believe the growing popularity of switching could ultimately work against traditional router vendors such as Cisco. He noted that the routing function increasingly is being incorporated into hubs and switches which reduces the number of dedicated routers agencies need to buy."The function of the router has not gone away " Bibb said. "[But] it can be done elsewhere in the network. More likely organizations need fewer routers than before."

The government is reducing the number of routers it installs and is using switches to create its network backbones because they are faster and less expensive said Brett Michaels director of federal sales at Xylan Corp. The average price per port for a 10 megabit/sec Ethernet switch is about $500 compared with $500 to $1 000 per port for routers he said.

"The market for switching will be an estimated $5 billion market next year " Michaels said. "There's an insatiable demand for bandwidth and switching is filling it."

Andy Boots director of systems technology at the Justice Department said he will be purchasing 10 and 100 megabit/sec Ethernet switches for installation throughout the department as the products become available on the Justice Consolidated Office Network contract held by GTE Government Systems Corp. Boots said the department will also buy routers for installation at the "edge" of networks to interconnect LANs or to connect network segments. But he said switches will provide the throughput needed for the department's office automation applications.

"We're using switching because it's an affordable way of getting more bandwidth to our PCs " he said. "The files that I used to have on my hard disk are now stored on a server down the hall. We need switches to give us hard disk access speeds."

Trent Waterhouse a product marketing manager at Cabletron Systems Inc. said switches "are an order of magnitude less expensive with an order of magnitude more throughput" than routers. He said Cabletron's Smart-Switch products incorporate the company's SecureFast technology supporting IP and other protocols without the need for routers. Waterhouse added that routers often require skilled technicians for maintenance and are more difficult to install. "Switches are plug and play and routers are plug and pray " he said.

Paul Dassing manager of systems engineering at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Patrick Air Force Base both in Florida said he plans to move his routers to the edge of his network and install Cabletron Ethernet and 100 megabit/sec Fiber Distributed Data Interface SmartSwitches in the infrastructure.Although he has not completed the transition Dassing said he has no doubt that the solution will deliver greater bandwidth to users. "I know I will see a performance improvement " he asserted. "It will be like a racing car competing against a Volkswagen. You pretty much know going in that the racing car is going to smoke him."

Agencies also are considering new switching technologies. Larry Blair vice president of marketing at Ipsilon Networks Inc. said several agencies including Sandia National Laboratory N.M. and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Greenbelt Md. are reviewing an IP switch the company introduced earlier this year. The product is half the price of high-performance routers according to Blair and combines IP routing and ATM switching.

"Given the prevalence of IP in the government the interest is high " Blair said.

The product aims to replace routers and competes with Cisco's tag switching technology (see story Page 39).

Cisco maintains that routing and switching go hand in hand and says it already holds 50 percent of the LAN switching market. "We are replacing routing technology with switching technology [in some agencies] but we don't see the [routing] functionality going away " said Jim Massa director of Cisco's federal operations.

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