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Cisco's refreshed stackable switches for new era of campus LAN design

Shamus McGillicuddy

Cisco Systems yesterday unveiled a refresh of all of its fixed-configuration, stackable switches, sending networking pros the message that the spotlight recently shone on data center networks is turning back to campus LAN design, with

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an emphasis on smarter, software-centric wiring closet switches. And where Cisco's spotlight shines, the CIO's eyes will follow.

Of the various new network devices and stackable switches announced yesterday by Cisco, the new Catalyst 3750-X and the Catalyst 3560-X have the biggest impact on the future of campus LANs. Both switches allow a series of advanced network services and applications to be built into the platform without sacrificing performance, according to Rob Soderbery, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Ethernet Switching Technology Group.

In recent years, networking vendors have focused their marketing hype on data center networks and wireless LAN, while campus LAN design has been rather stable in its evolution. Every vendor has solid 48-port Gigabit Ethernet stackable switches for your wiring closets, and these switches have almost become a commodity.

"In a 1 RU form factor, you just can't get more than 48 ports, right?" said Steve Schuchart, principal analyst with Current Analysis. "With a CAT-5 cable, it's just not physically possible to have more than that. Everybody has pretty much hit line-rate, nonblocking [1 Gigabit Ethernet]. All the traditional metrics for fixed configuration switches have largely become check-box features."

Now, a new wave of differentiation will start to occur in the form of software, Schuchart said. And the software-based network services offered in Cisco's Borderless Networks vision are the major focus of the refresh of the Catalyst 3750 and 3560 stackable switches. Cisco first introduced its Borderless Networks vision in November, when it announced a refresh of its Integrated Services Router (ISR) product family.

Smart stackable switches that go beyond just added security

Some of the smaller vendors have tried to differentiate themselves with smarter switches in the past, most notably Enterasys Networks, whose entire line of switches , including its fixed configuration models, have advanced security features built right into them. Defunct startup ConSentry took a shot at this too, with switches that had network access control technology built into them. Now Cisco is bringing forward its own vision, which goes beyond security services.

"This is a vision for how people should be thinking about LAN access networks," Soderbery said. "The Borderless Networks idea proposes that anyone using any kind of device from any place at any time should be able to access the resources appropriate for them. This requires a more user-focused approach. We're trying to change the way people think about building out their networks."

The Borderless Networks vision includes five core network services concepts that have a huge impact on the future of campus network design fundamentals: performance, video, green technology, security and mobility. Each of these will eventually find their way onto the new Catalyst 3750 and 3560 platforms; but, for now, Cisco has just three on the market: MediaNet for video optimization, EnergyWise for green technology and power management, and TrustSec for security.

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In terms of security, these new switches will have the MACsec security standard written directly into them. MACsec enables link-level, wire-speed encryption on all 48 ports, Soderbery said. Cisco's TrustSec technology manages this MAC-based security, allowing the switches to auto-negotiate with one another.

The MediaNet capabilities on the Catalyst 3750 and 3560 will optimize the network for video. For instance, the switches will be able to automatically detect video endpoints and allocate and prioritize bandwidth to them.

The Catalyst 3750 will also have some hardware-based feature improvements, such as 1 GbE and 10 GbE modular uplinks that can be swapped out on the fly, and enhanced Power over Ethernet (PoE+). The 3750s will also have a new StackPower feature that will allow up to four switches to share one another's power supplies. If the power supply from one switch dies, it can draw power from the others while network managers bring in a replacement.

And for the less ambitious, the Catalyst 2960-S

Cisco also announced a refresh for its lower-end fixed configuration switch with the Catalyst 2960-S. This switch has the green EnergyWise capabilities of the Borderless Networks architecture for power management, but it has none of the other features. It also has PoE+ support and 1 GbE and 10 GbE uplink options.

"It doesn't have all the service capabilities of the [Catalyst 3000 line]," Soderbery said, "but there are a number of clients who just need an enterprise-class basic switching platform, and this is optimized for them."

A new campus LAN design for a new reality

Cisco hasn't placed so much emphasis on the campus LAN since it started introducing nonblocking 1 GbE stackable switches about six years ago, Schuchart said.

"The big push back then [was] to get everyone off of 100 Megabit and get 1 Gigabit to the closet, which had a lot to do with the big wave of IP telephony and PoE," he said.

Networks have changed a lot since then, he said, and Cisco's Borderless Networks concept is a reflection of that.

"The idea of the hard edge of the network, where everything inside the network is protected and everything on the outside isn't trusted just isn't true anymore," Schuchart said. "When we look at smartphones and the myriad ways we access corporate data -- having to extend security to each device -- that's one thing about Borderless Networks. It's not that we aren't doing security. It's that security needs to be flexible. We need to extend the corporate border around your laptop or cell phone, and we need to do it in a way that doesn't require a ton of intervention by the user or by IT."

Cisco to CIOs: Shift your focus back to campus LAN design

Cisco's Borderless Networks vision is all about optimizing the campus network for video, security, mobility, green technology management and performance. These are features that networking pros on the front lines have been thinking about piecemeal all along while CIOs have lost sight, focusing on the larger picture of emerging technologies and the data center. Now Cisco wants CIOs to refocus their attention on the campus network.

"Because that [campus switch] market has kind of commoditized, it's been less of a technology focus for the CIO or for upper management," Schuchart said. "[Networking pros] have basically said, 'We buy these switches and they work and that's it.' The CIO's job is to do the grander vision. If a company is really looking at going to video everywhere, that has to come from the top."

Now CIOs will hear the message from Cisco and decide whether they want to pursue the Borderless Networks vision, Schuchart said. Then it will be up to the network engineers to figure out how to make it work.

"I think what's going to happen is a networking pro is going to look at the Borderless Networks message and then drill down to the specifics," he said. "He's going to look at MediaNet and TrustSec and look at the individual pieces and try to fit them into his puzzle."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor


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