Buyer's Guide

Choosing the best campus switches for your network environment

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A comparison of the leading campus LAN switch vendors

Expert Andrew Froehlich examines the factors that will ultimately help you determine which campus LAN switch vendors and types are most suitable for your environment.

With so many campus LAN switch features that are seemingly identical from one switch vendor to the next, it's challenging to identify the true difference between them. But much of what you truly need in a campus switch depends largely on what your end users are demanding, as well as the campus environment into which your new switches will be integrated.

This article will apply important purchasing criteria to the leading LAN switch vendors. The idea is to provide a few purchasing scenarios that you can identify with and apply your personal purchasing criteria to in order to narrow down your list of LAN switch vendors.

Port speed and number of connections

If your primary concern is having the optimal number of ports and port speeds for your LAN, then choosing a vendor with a wide range of switch types and models is important. Most enterprise-class campus LAN switch vendors offer both fixed and modular switches that can be upgraded by swapping out switch blades. Some vendors also offer fixed switches that can be stacked together to form a single virtual switch. Cisco, Huawei and Juniper Networks provide a wide variety of switch options -- from very small, compact switches with just a few fixed ports to massive blade chassis, modular switches that can be upgraded to accommodate an assortment of gigabit and multigigabit ports. Or, if you're simply looking for no-frills, budget switches that can be deployed in most SMB environments, both Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) offer low-cost options that are known to be reliable and contain most of the features you might need.

Power over Ethernet

PoE is becoming increasingly important. Not only is it commonly used to connect and power IP phones, wireless access points and security cameras, the internet of things (IoT) revolution is going to rely heavily on PoE to power different types of sensors and data collection devices. If you require PoE only up to 30 watts using the 802.3at standard, your options are wide open. However, if you need to power devices that use more than that, or believe you may in the future, Cisco is the only enterprise-class vendor that offers Universal Power over Ethernet, which can power devices up to approximately 60 watts using the same twisted pair cabling that 802.3at uses.

Performance

If your top concern is making sure that frames are moved from point A to point B as fast as possible, you likely work in the financial world of high-frequency trading (HFT). When competitive advantages in trading can come down to microseconds, the switches you choose are critical. There are a few campus switch vendors that specialize in creating ultra-low latency switches. Cisco, Extreme Networks and Juniper both offer HFT-class switches, but Arista Networks has truly made its mark in the world of HFT with its high performance.

Reliability and redundancy

Reliability and redundancy are different, yet complementary traits. Switch reliability involves the mean time between failure (MTBF) of hardware components. Basically, MTBF is how many projected hours, on average, you should expect a specific switch or switch component to operate before it finally fails. Much of the status of MTBF of switch vendors involves past history and reputation of the quality of their hardware. The amount of redundancy built into your network relies on how hardware, software and automatic failover functions are used to effectively reroute switch traffic around failures and ultimately reduce the impact of a failed network component.

MTBF and redundancy make up your campus network's overall availability. Juniper has a strong following, partly due to the fact it makes hardware components that, on average, last longer than other vendors' comparable components. But while Cisco doesn't have quite the quality reputation that Juniper does in terms of MTBF, it makes up for it in redundancy by offering a few more proprietary tricks in terms of First Hop Redundancy Protocols, dynamic routing protocols and virtual port channeling. All of these contribute to a network that can withstand the occasional hardware failure without any significant end-user effect.

Harsh operating environments

In the past, only a handful of small niche vendors offered Ethernet switches that could be deployed in harsh environments. But with the growing interest in IoT, that's rapidly changing. There are now a few enterprise-class vendors that are attempting to make a name for themselves in this space. Industrial Ethernet switches must be manufactured to operate in a wider temperature range -- both hot and cold. They must also be able to handle large fluctuations in power, be shock- and vibration-resistant, and have longer than normal MTBF ratings. For this, Cisco offers its Industrial Ethernet and Connected Grid Switch lines. But Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise and Extreme Networks also occupy this space, making quality equipment at very reasonable price points.

Warranty and support

Much like purchasing a car, the hardware warranty and customer service will play a deciding role in which switch vendor you ultimately choose. When you're looking at low-end access switches for your network, you'll quickly discover that most enterprise-class vendors offer limited lifetime warranties on the hardware. Keep in mind, however, that technical assistance and access to updated switch firmware will cost extra. Some campus switch vendors, such as HPE, use a hybrid approach. The company's Lifetime Warranty 2.0 offers a lifetime hardware warranty, as well as three years of software upgrades and phone technical support as part of the built-in purchase price of the switch. This unique approach helps lower the overall ROI for these types of purchases.

As you step up into more sophisticated access, distribution and core-layer switches, warranties and support contracts will also increase in price. Typical warranties for hardware range from 90 days to one year. Extending the warranty requires you to purchase a support contract that commonly offers extended hardware warranties with a range of service-level agreements in regard to online and phone support and replacement hardware turnaround. Support contracts also include full access to firmware updates to add new features or patch bugs and vulnerabilities. Year after year, vendors gauge their technical support in comparison to Cisco's Technical Assistance Center, which seems to be the unofficial benchmark gold standard. But paying for premium support often comes at a premium price. Other vendors, including Juniper, HPE, Arista, Brocade Communications Systems Inc. and Extreme, also offer solid support.

When a switch isn't simply a switch

As you can see from our comparison, there are many factors that will ultimately determine which campus LAN switch vendors and types are most suitable for your environment. It may take additional research and several conversations with vendors before you narrow down your final choices. But, hopefully, this information has laid the groundwork and provided a roadmap of how to systematically determine the difference among switch types, why you need them and what specific and unique features and services switch vendors can provide.

Next Steps

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This was last published in November 2016

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Buyer's Guide

Choosing the best campus switches for your network environment

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