Switch vendors hit the accelerator

Foundry Networks Inc., Riverstone Networks Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. have recently unveiled new high-speed switches, responding to never-ending demands for faster networks.

Foundry last week released its BigIron MG8, targeted at enterprise applications. The system is wired for a 10 Gigabit Ethernet connection but can be upgraded to 40 Gigabit Ethernet in the future.

Foundry, which counts dozens of military bases and several federal agencies among its customers, has made products in the BigIron line for seven years.

The new product boasts 1.28 terabits of switching capacity per system, making it suited for high- powered enterprise use, said Adam Stein, director of corporate marketing at Foundry. It measures about 22 inches and takes up about one-third of a standard rack.

"There's increasing speed and capacity requirements in their networks," Stein said of the company's customers. "We're talking about an amazing amount of capacity in a one-third of a rack box."

Foundry chose to "future-proof" the system with the 40 Gigabit Ethernet capability even though many organizations are just moving into 1 gigabit/sec networking.

The demand is always growing and the trend is ever upward, said Anthony James, Foundry's product marketing manager for enterprise applications. The company estimates that a standard for 40 Gigabit Ethernet will be complete in two or three years, at which point 100 gigabit/sec capacity will be in view.

Foundry's new products are intended for such high-end markets, James said.

"That's where these systems perform very well, moving large amounts of data around. We can sustain high-performance, low-latency systems like grid computing," he said. "There are plans afoot for many enterprises to move to a 10 Gigabit Ethernet in the backbone. They use a Gigabit Ethernet link, and over time they start using multiple trunks. Over time it becomes inefficient, using eight strands of fiber for an 8-gig trunk."

Big Iron also features new security measures, James said. Each interface module — the elements of the system that connect to other network devices — has its own local processor. Under normal circumstances the central processor controls the system. The individual module processors come to life when someone attempts an attack on the network, such as bombarding it with data requests in an effort to overload it, the classic denial-of-service attack.

"If somebody was doing a denial-of-service attack on a switch, the central processor has to get involved in preventing that and it drives performance down," James said. "By embedding a processor on each module, we're able to perform functions like that without affecting performance."

Foundry draws much of its business from the commercial sector, but it also has a significant and increasing federal presence, Stein said.

"Within government there are subsectors, like health care. The activities of the government group are targeted at specific subsectors they are after," he said.

"We don't just have one product here, one product there. A lot of these government institutions have mandates to find a network supplier that can provide a converged network — voice, video and data," he added.

Meanwhile, Riverstone last month released XGS 9000, a family of 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches. Riverstone officials believe the company has broken the price barrier that has kept government agencies from adopting 10 Gigabit Ethernet, said Stephen Garrison, the company's senior director of corporate marketing. The company's list price is $9,995 for one 10 gigabit port.

Foundry's BigIron lists for $64,995 for a four-port 10 gigabit switch, which equals about $16,000 per port.

Also in April, Cisco announced its Catalyst 3750 Series of "stackable" switches. Stackable switches can be configured so that network managers can control several of them as if they were a single switch.

The Catalyst switches, available in 10/100 megabit "fast Ethernet" and also Gigabit Ethernet, are designed for organizations that have limited physical space for switches, said Ishmael Limkakeng, product line manager for Cisco's desktop switching business unit.

"Gigabit Ethernet deployments have become more common. We're starting to see it more in small and medium businesses," he said. "One of the great debates in the industry right now is whether or not you need to start deploying Gigabit Ethernet. In the government space, there are enormous data center needs where Gigabit Ethernet is important."

The "stackable" feature is another question that customers have to consider. However, it may not be a hard decision, said Paul Farrance, network operations manager at the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service.

For high-density, high-speed operations, nonstackable, high-capacity switches may be suitable, he said. For applications that demand the ability to quickly adapt to changing conditions, stackable switches might be a better fit.

"Instead of buying one giant switch, which then commits you to one location, with stackable switches you can break them apart and use them in multiple locations," Farrance said. "You have more flexibility to redistribute your load."

"Most enterprises typically don't go out and buy switches on a 'onesie-twosie' basis," said Chris Kozup, program director for technical research services at the META Group Inc. "They look at the whole network and the needs and choose a vendor to meet those needs."

Although stackable technology is not new, Cisco's new line represents a step ahead for it, Kozup said. The 3750 Series is more reliable than stacks have been in the past.

"You now have this proprietary, sturdy, fully redundant stacking architecture," he said.

Cisco officials believe the new product line, powered by software called StackWise, addresses customers' concerns about the total cost of network ownership, Limkakeng said. Network managers are beginning to incorporate stackable switches into their planning, rather than implementing the technology piecemeal.

"Older versions of stacking were built as an afterthought to the switches themselves," Limkakeng said. "As people start to think about Gigabit Ethernet, the old stackable networks don't hold together very well."

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Network switch speeds

10/100: "Fast Ethernet," can move data at either 10 megabits/sec or 100 megabits/sec.

Gigabit Ethernet: Moves one gigabit of data per second, equivalent to 1,000 megabits.

10 Gigabit Ethernet: Moves data at 10 gigabits/sec.

Networks are only as fast as their slowest component. Fast switches are useless unless the fiber- optic cabling and other network hardware have a capacity high enough to support the switches.

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