Cisco Revamps Key LAN Switches with Virtualization

Customers won't have to "rip and replace" switches, thanks to firmware upgrades that include virtualization.

Cisco Systems Nov. 6 launched a revamp of its venerable Catalyst 6500 and 4500 LAN switches to better support peer-to-peer and real-time applications—without actually rearchitecting the products.

Cisco added new virtualization capabilities to its Catalyst 6500 that allow customers to get a performance boost without having to "rip and replace" the chassis switch.

At the same time, the company refreshed its 8-year-old Catalyst 4500 LAN switches by adding a new Supervisor engine, new line cards and new chassis that promise to boost performance by a factor of four.

The new Catalyst 6500 Virtual Switching System 1440 allows customers to collapse multiple physical Catalyst 6500 chassis into a single logical switch. This is intended to boost performance and reduce operational overhead by allowing multiple switches to be managed as a single unit.

Using the VSS 1440 to combine multiple Catalyst 6500 switches, customers can scale performance up to 1.44 terabits per second. At the same time, that combination allows multiple switches to be managed as one and share a single IP address and routing instance.

"For example, two nine-slot 6500s could be collapsed into a single 18-slot box. And because we are managing the VSS as a single platform, we reduce the management overhead by a factor of two," said Walt Blomquist, senior director for the Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series Systems in San Jose, Calif.

"The intent is to use virtualization to address the need for greater levels of resiliency and reduce operational overhead associated with more complex networks," Blomquist said.


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Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of enterprise IT researcher The Yankee Group in Boston, acknowledged to eWEEK that the Cat 6500 has long been criticized as a platform that is "over the hill."

"Foundry's had four different new high-end products in the same time [frame] that Cisco's had the 6500 on the market," Kerravala said. "I think there's a lot of questions about whether the 6500 is over the hill or not." The way it is architected allows them to increase capacity without changing the chassis, he noted.

"This [revamp] is good for Cisco because it allows them to protect their largest revenue stream—the 6500 has been a big revenue stream for them over the years. For customers, it allows them to upgrade to a faster switch without having to do a whole 'forklift' upgrade," Kerravala said.

The industry is at a major inflection point for network upgrades, Forrester senior analyst Rob Whiteley told eWEEK.


"Many customers are in the process of their usual five- or seven-year network refreshes," Whiteley said. "We're seeing a higher degree of activity because a large bulk of enterprises refreshed networks back toward the end of the bubble and the Y2K scare.

"However, if you couple that with increased competitive pressure in the switching space—namely, ProCurve has announced its core switch product, Nortel has seen some advancements and is bolstered by its Microsoft relationship, and companies like 3Com are attempting to ramp up efforts with the Huawei assets—then Cisco has had to ensure its products are in line with emerging customer demands."

Whiteley said he believes what is most significant about these announcements is the focus Cisco is showing on innovative switching capabilities.

"Specifically, I think we see that the innovations are coming along two critical dimensions: 1) operational streamlining, which includes the management and virtualization on the SUP 1440; and 2) the emphasis on new ASICs and capabilities with the CenterFlex," Whiteley said.

What advantage does virtualization bring to this part of the data center?

"Virtualization is a very hot topic, but it often gets misused depending on its context," Whiteley said. "Overall, virtualization promises agile infrastructure. It allows you to create an abstraction layer between all the physical devices you have [network routers, switches, server process, storage, etc] and the application workloads you put on top of that."


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Virtualization removes the need to hard-code an application workload to a particular physical computing stack, Whiteley said.

"With that said, the virtualization that Cisco is employing here is slightly different," Whiteley said. "They are applying virtualization within their own closed system. They are abstracting the physical number of devices from the logical management of those devices, which allows an enterprise to operationally streamline the management of Catalyst devices."

This is critical in the data center, where switch proliferation (for redundancy, reliability, performance, etc.) is very difficult to manage, Whiteley said.

"Bottom line, I think this is a critical announcement," Whiteley said. "Cisco customers that have either been tempted to go with another core switch vendor for better 10 GigE price/performance or for specific advanced functionality should reconsider Cisco."

"We need to deliver to our customers both speed and reliability," Jim Messer, director of network services for the CME Group, a global financial exchange company based in Chicago, told eWEEK. "Our customer base is growing globally, and our electronic trading volume grew 28 percent in October 2007." Currently 81 percent of CME Group's business is now transacted electronically, Messer said.

"So, in order to keep attracting electronic trading business, we need to continue to deliver electronic trading systems that minimize downtime and provide fast response times through our networks," he said.

"The new Cisco product enhances the speed in which the network recovers when hardware failures do occur, to the point of transparency to the end user. With today's technology, we are limited to the timings of protocol in use, which are in the tens of seconds range."


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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...