Modest budgets are forcing some networking professionals to experiment with commodity hardware from low-cost network switch vendors at the access layer of their LAN network design.
These cheap network switches may not have the same level of support, quality or advanced features as their counterparts from premium vendors, but some enterprises consider them good enough to get the job done.
When David Williams, vice president of IT for a midmarket bank on the east coast, did a LAN refresh a couple of years ago, he replaced his Cisco Systems wiring closet switches with Adtran's.
The switch refresh was necessary when he replaced his first-generation Avaya VoIP system with one from ShoreTel. With a modest $500,000 budget, Williams asked his ShoreTel reseller to recommend a cheap Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) switch that could power his IP phones. The reseller pointed him toward Adtran's 48-port, Layer 2 NetVanta 1238 switches.
"Our network was predominantly Cisco when I arrived here, in the closets and the core," he said. "[The reseller] said they usually used Cisco, but they recommended Adtran as a cost-effective alternative, and they bundled that in with the project. We paid $1,600 for each Adtran switch. The Cisco switches were in the $3,500-or-higher range. It was a big difference."
Using cheap network switches in LAN network design is catching on in many enterprises. According to a recent Gartner research note, "Use Commodity Switches in Your LAN to Save Money," low-cost vendor D-Link had the second highest volume of port shipments to midmarket and large enterprises in 2009. D-Link accounted for 17.9% of total port shipments, compared with Cisco's 31.4% share.
"We've observed this happening for a couple of years," said Maggie Wu, product line manager with Netgear. "It doesn't matter how sophisticated the core network equipment is. Enterprises can require something as simple as an unmanaged switch at an employee cubicle for connectivity."
Many networking pros consider the idea of an unmanaged switch in the campus LAN a security and management nightmare, but low-cost vendors are supplying more than unmanaged switches.
What exactly is a cheap network switch?
Cheap is a relative term in networking. Cisco is the high-margin vendor. Compared with its premium prices, competitors like Juniper Networks and HP Networking appear more affordable. But there's another class of commodity network switch vendors whose price-per-port offerings are drastically lower.
Allied Telesis, D-Link, Netgear, Fujitsu and other vendors offer enterprise-class products at cut-rate prices. Many of these vendors can deliver extremely cheap network switches because they use commercially available silicon components. Premium vendors like Cisco, Juniper and HP design application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for their switches. These ASIC chips -- and the advanced features that they power -- increase the price of high-end switches. Many premium vendors add Layer 3 functionality to their LAN access switches, which also inflates prices. Gartner principal research analyst Bjarne Munch, author of Gartner's new research note on commodity switches, said many enterprises don't need that Layer 3 functionality at the LAN access layer. They can save money by going with Layer 2-only switches from commodity vendors.
Commodity vendors offer a variety of low-cost switches, both managed and unmanaged fixed-configuration Layer 2 switches, as well as fixed and modular Layer 2 and Layer 3 switches.
Working with cheap network switches
Like many IT pros who have saved money with cheap network switches, Williams has deployed a hybrid network. He has 40 Adtran switches at his LAN access layer and at his two dozen bank branches. His new data center network contains EX series switches from Juniper Networks, and his branches have Cisco routers for WAN connectivity.
Williams said the mix of vendors hasn't added much complexity to his network because the Adtran switches integrated well with his Juniper and Cisco boxes. He's also happy with the reliability of the Adtran switches so far.
But vendor politics can sometimes be a barrier to using low-cost vendors. Adrian Terranova, a network engineer with a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that he declined to identify, has had good experiences with Netgear switches in small office deployments that he's done as a consultant. He hasn't used Netgear in his current employer's enterprise network, however, because the company has a strategic relationship with Cisco. His company wouldn't allow the introduction of any non-Cisco switch into its network for fear of spoiling that relationship.
Also, using Netgear in the access layer of his corporate LAN would probably require some network segmentation because premium vendors don't always support low-cost-vendor switches in a hybrid network, Terranova said.
"Your distribution layer [vendor] probably wouldn't support a third-party vendor in the access layer, so you would have to find a way to segment off the relationship and get a clear demarcation between your distribution and access layer," he said. "I would do it over an access router that sits between the distribution and access layer. As long as it was the [premium vendor's] router, they won't care."
But some networking pros are turning to vendors of cheap network switches for their entire LAN network design. Mike Felerski, network manager for Butler County in Ohio, built out his entire network with about 230 switches from Allied Telesis six years ago. At the time, he was considering Enterasys Networks but chose Allied Telesis in order to save money.
"Enterasys makes great gear," Felerski said. "The problem was the price point. Sometimes you can buy best-of-breed, but we were looking at mostly Layer 2 switches, so we looked at Allied [Telesis]. They provided some of the same functionality, but their price was significantly lower, and they could provide OSPF [in their Layer 3 switches]."
The downside of cheap network switches
In general, the quality of commodity switches is comparable to that of premium vendors' switches, according to Munch, who wrote that most enterprises can expect to get five to seven years out of these products.
Enterprises should instead take a hard look at the level of support that low-cost vendors can offer on their switches and the types of advanced features that they can deliver. For example, most of these vendors offer some basic management features such as Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) and Remote Network Monitoring (RMON), but they vary in their support of network flow protocols like Netflow and sFlow.
Felerski said he is starting to look for flow-analysis tools to track performance and network behavior. But in the past, the Allied Telesis switches didn't support a network flow protocol. That changed recently, he said, when the vendor introduced sFlow support.
An upcoming project might push the limits of his low-cost network, however, because he may introduce Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) to improve storage backups across his two data centers for disaster recovery. Allied Telesis doesn't have any support for that technology in its roadmap. "We might have to invest in some HP switches now, but Allied could surprise us," he said.
Williams anticipates that he will introduce network access control (NAC) to his bank's network at some point in the next few years, and he is uncertain about the ability of his Adtran switches to work with whatever NAC product he selects.
"A lot of it depends on complexity," he said. "If you're doing a holistic NAC solution that integrates all these Cisco features and functionality, [Adtran switches] might not be the right choice."
Ubiquity of support has always been a major selling point for Cisco. Enterprises can engage in support agreements that guarantee 24/7 support and same-day delivery of replacement products and parts. Other premium vendors can deliver next-day replacement at the very least. The low-cost vendors will vary in their ability to replace products quickly, particularly those whose market presence varies by geography. Some get around this by partnering with other IT companies. Allied Telesis, which does the majority of its business in Japan, recently signed a global support and maintenance services agreement with IBM to serve European customers.
On the flipside, cheap network switches leave enough room in some budgets for networking pros to keep extra gear on the shelf.
"If something dies, they can replace it in 24 hours. But for critical things, we have extra switches on the shelf so I can swap [a failed switch] out immediately," Felerski said. "And when the new one comes in, I just put it on the shelf."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor