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Cisco Live 2011: More than the Nexus 7009?

Rivka Gewirtz Little

Cisco Systems customers suspect the company will use Cisco Live 2011 this week to begin reclaiming its lost share of the Ethernet switching market partially by introducing the Nexus 7009—a smaller version of the popular 7000 chassis at a price that is easier to swallow.

But the company may need to pack a lot more punch than a simpler, cheaper switch to take on the very loud fears in Las Vegas this week around rumors of a 10,000-employee layoff combined with the fact that Cisco's share of the Ethernet switching market slipped to 68.2% in Q1 from 73.1% last year, and its stock price is at an all-time low. What's more

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Cisco competitors are coming to the table with cheaper—though less feature-rich—switches, and customers are more willing than ever to shop around.

A powerful switch at a much lower cost could address the problem of customer loss due to pricing. The Nexus 7009 and so-called Fabric 2 cards that would extend functionality of virtual switching were first discussed at Cisco Live 2010 in user informational sessions and have already been in trial by many users, but haven't been officially launched.

“With the 7009 you could have a smaller chassis with higher speeds—a smaller 7000 switch with the functionality of the big boys and pave the way for 40 and 100 gig switching,” said Jeffrey Fry, CCIE, network engineer at a multinational company and author of the FryGuy blog. “Where I work we have aging 6500s that need to be replaced soon, and the 7000 currently towers over the 6500s.”

The 7009 would be around the same height as a 6500, allowing engineers to replace their older chassis within the same rack space without a complete physical redesign. What's more, these switches and the Fabric 2 cards would have an extended backplane, as well as the virtual switching capabilities of the Nexus 7000. Nexus 7000s have a Virtual Design Context (VDC) feature which enables engineers to divide one chassis into four separate virtual switches, making them much more technically and cost efficient.

“I can make a DMZ switch, an inside switch, an outside switch and use one chassis,” said Fry. The ability to do that on smaller switches would definitely make the investment more worthwhile.

Cisco executives have said the company's message at Cisco Live would center on switching and cloud infrastructure and that it would make technical announcements that could change the face of the switching portfolio. However, Cisco would not confirm whether it would unveil an addition to the Nexus line at the show.

Cisco Live 2011: What about merchant silicon?

Execs also wouldn't comment on what Cisco’s message would be around the use of merchant silicon or the rumored Jawbreaker data center fabric addition that would go beyond the existing TRILL-like FabricPath approach to flattening the network. Cisco has always differentiated its products with custom silicon that enables much higher functionality, but in recent years competitors have used merchant silicon to build cheaper 10 GbE switches.

EtherealMind blogger Greg Ferro says that the merchant silicon used by competitors has contributed to Cisco's weakened hold in the switching market. Cisco's more functional custom silicon strategy that once put the company ahead in the market may have backfired.

Because Cisco has done customized silicon, they are three years behind,” Ferro said, acknowledging, however, that this technology has given Cisco “pretty neat features.”

Cisco announced the Nexus 3000, based on merchant silicon, which is touted as the super-fast switch to turn to when users need lowest possible latency for high-frequency apps.

I am curious what their long-term strategy will be considering the 3000 is coming out using Broadcom silicon. Are they going to use a combination of custom and merchant?” said network architect Matthew Norwood, author of the InSearchofTech blog.

Whatever Cisco announces this week, Norwood hopes the company continues to demonstrate that it is serious about focusing on core technologies like routing and switching, rather than stumbling with consumer-driven investments like Flip video, which it recently dumped.

“I would like to hear less about video. That seems to be all they want to talk about. Video is nothing but another stream on the wire. There are quality of service and bandwidth issues with video, but that doesn't change my view of networking,” said Norwood. “They're becoming the CA of hardware. What I'd like to see from Cisco—and I know Chambers has alluded to this—is a streamlining of the organization and getting back to the things they're good at—voice, routing and switching.”

Will Cisco Live 2011 address the troubled SMARTnet?

As Cisco works to refocus efforts around routing and switching, users would also like to see the company shape up SMARTnet, the technical assistance and support program that every shop is forced to invest in with Cisco networking components.

“At one time they were expensive, but they had brilliant tech support. That tech support is not as good as it used to be … and services levels are not as good as they once were,” said Ferro, who also has a problem with most maintenance contracts being turned over to channel partners.

Norwood contends that giving customers direct access to SMARTnet—instead of giving that access to partners—would make things function more smoothly.

“SMARTnet has to be steamlined to make it less burdensome on the customer,” Norwood said.

Follow us for more Cisco Live 2011 coverage throughout the week.


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