Cisco Live 2011: Catalyst 6500 upgrade the game changer?

At Cisco 2011, Cisco played to its core audience, announcing a Catalyst 6500 upgrade that will triple the switch's speed and capacity and beef up security and management.

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LAS VEGAS—Cisco served up comfort food for the networking masses on the first day of Cisco Live 2011, sidestepping edgy cloud announcements and focusing instead on a major Catalyst 6500 upgrade.

Cisco is in full battle mode in the switching market where it has lost some ground to competitors with less expensive equipment, including HP Networking. Some customers had expected Cisco to launch a smaller and less expensive addition to the Nexus line (the Nexus 7009 mentioned at Cisco Live 2010), but the Catalyst 6500 upgrade will enable 25,000 existing customers to upgrade their E-Series chasses without the cost of a rip and replace. The message is that they don't need to go with less expensive and less functional equipment from competitors.

“Our goal and aim was to make sure we could protect those customers' investment,” said Scott Gainey, Cisco director of marketing.

The refresh is centered on the Catalyst 6500 Series Supervisor Engine 2T, a 2-terabit card that triples the throughput capability of the 6500 switch from 720 Gbps to 2Tbps and adds virtualization segmentation. Cisco execs compared the $38,000 Supervisor 2T to HP's A9508 switch, saying customers can triple the performance at one third of the cost with this upgrade.

HP called Cisco's comparison of the Supervisor 2T with HP's A9508 "meaningless." Mike Nielsen, director of solution marketing at HP, said that Cisco is comparing the price of a supervisor engine upgrade with the cost of a complete chassis switch system from HP. He also pointed out that HP launched a new competitor to the Catalyst 6500 platform at Interop, the A10500 series, which outperforms an upgraded 6500.

"HP delivers two times Cisco's performance with the HP 105000. Cisco 2T delivers 80 Gbps per slot; HP 10500 doubles that to 160 Gbps," Nielsen said.

The Catalyst 6500 upgrade also includes 10 Gigabit Ethernet line cards—the 6900 8-port 10G card with baked in TrustSec security and the 6800, which includes two 16-port 10G modules and a 48-port Gigabit Ethernet module. Cisco also announced service modules that enable a high performance next-generation firewall, an application control engine for acceleration and security, more comprehensive NetFlow capabilities and mobility management that enables north of 10,000 devices on one module. Cisco says the combined bandwidth from the cards and supervisor make the Catalyst 6500 40 GbE ready, but the company hasn't announced any 40 GbE ports yet.

Catalyst 6500 upgrade? What about the Nexus transition?

Many believed that the Nexus line was meant to replace the aging Catalyst 6500, but this week at Cisco Live, execs said the two addressed very separate markets with different needs.

“The Nexus was meant to bring 10 Gigabit Ethernet into the data center, but gigabit Ethernet is also enormous and there are segments [other than the data center] that have to be addressed. The 6500 fits the sweet spot of the campus that nobody in the market can keep up with,” said John McCool, senior vice president of data center and switching.

“We see the market bifurcating into a campus-based market that needs rich services and the data center network with convergence that takes a different functionality,” he added.

For those who want to keep existing 6500s in the core and aren't concerned about building a Nexus-based data center and managing two sets of equipment, the release seems only positive.

"The core of the network may not always get the limelight, but it makes or breaks the performance of the applications our faculty, students, and researchers depend upon daily,” said Ed Wilson, network test engineer at Pennsylvania State University, who was part of Cisco's press launch. “The introduction of the Catalyst 6500 Supervisor Engine 2T will extend our investment in Cisco systems.

On the other hand, customers who have invested big into Cisco's server products, the Unified Computing System (UCS), and built a Nexus-based network to support UCS want to see more than a Catalyst 6500 upgrade. Many of these users will eventually take build a core-to-edge 10 GbE network and had gotten the message from Cisco that 6500s would be eventually replaced by the Nexus.

“We're going with the Nexus because it has FCoE capabilities and we're looking at the long-term architecture. Also we need the virtualization abilities of the Nexus” said Rich Parker, security and communications manager at law firm Baker Botts LLP. “I've also heard this is the last supervisor upgrade for the 6500, so that's not an investment we would make.”

Adding speed and functionality to a much-loved switch is never a bad thing, said Gestalt IT founder Stephen Foskett. It's also not the most exciting thing Cisco could have announced when it comes to switching, he said.

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