Dealing with the classic Catalyst 6500 end-of-life

The classic Catalyst 6500 has been the workhorse of networks everywhere for more than a decade. Now the platform is nearing its end of life. How should you proceed?

Network managers who have relied on the classic Cisco Catalyst 6500 platform in their data center and campus networks are approaching a crossroads: the Catalyst 6503, 6506 and 6509 platforms will reach end-of-life in November, which means Cisco will cease offering hardware support. Cisco will also stop selling the classic Catalyst 6513 in November, ending hardware support in August 2017.

Cisco offers a couple of migration options for customers facing classic Catalyst 6500 end-of-life. In the campus LAN, users can invest in the newer Catalyst 6500-E platform, which got a new lease on life with the release of the Supervisor Engine 2T. Meanwhile Cisco recommends that customers with the classic chassis in their data centers migrate to the Nexus line.

Catalyst 6500 end-of-life: Core migration is a headache

Catalyst customers are more concerned with a rip-and-replace at the core than in the wiring closet. Migration is somewhat simple in the wiring closet, while at the core it's much more radical.

“Replacing a core is not a trivial event. The hardware is cheap, but swapping out that hardware is an expensive proposition from an outage perspective, from a time perspective, and [in terms of] configuration validation,” said Forrest Schroth, network manager with staffing firm Randstad. “I would rather an upgrade at the core layer be a [result] of me needing functions that [the classic Catalyst 6500] doesn’t support rather than a vendor trying to push me new products.”

For many customers, the classic Catalyst is still sufficiently meeting their needs in the core.

“If you still have Catalyst 6500s around, they’ve been running in a fairly stable state for a while and most folks out there are going to continue running them as they stand. They understand that [the Catalyst 6500s] have limited functionality, but they are put in places in the network where [users] are not worried about a lot of forward evolution in terms of functionality,” said Eric Hanselman, research director with the 451 Group.

Even those that want to make change in the data center don't love the fact that Cisco is pushing them toward the Nexus line. In a newer data center, Schroth installed Catalyst 6500-Es in his core rather than migrating to the Nexus line.

“We were going back and forth because there are features we don’t need [in Nexus] and features we would lose going to Nexus,” Schroth said.

Can you avoid a Catalyst 6500 end-of-life?

As Cisco winds down the classic Catalyst 6500, network engineers can turn to after-market equipment specialists like Network Hardware Resale (NHR) that offer third-party support for the equipment. In fact, these companies see the Catalyst end-of-life as an opportunity.

Mike Lodato, senior vice president of sales and marketing at NHR, gives the example of one   healthcare organization with 385 classic Catalyst 6500s that was facing a $65 million migration bid from Cisco to the Catalyst 6500-E. The upgrade was driven by an upcoming rollout of voice over IP (VoIP) that would need the more robust Power-over-Ethernet capabilities of the Catalyst 6500-E. However, the VoIP rollout was a phased project with 85 sites in the first year, 120 in the second year and 92 in the third year. Rather than upgrade them all at once, the healthcare provider wanted a phased installation of the new switches, saving money by staggering the purchase, installation and support costs in time with the VoIP rollout. NHR was able to support that slow transition.

More on the Catalyst 6500

FastPacket: Catalyst 6500 Supervisor 2T may not be the answer

Catalyst 6500 versus Nexus 7000: Backplane capacity

Cisco adds 40 GbE and 100 GbE to Catalyst and Nexus lines

“We came in and said, 'instead of converting them all before you need them, how much does it save you to put those on third-party support?'” Lodato said. “'How much can you save in capital and depreciation expense by deploying them at the time of business need rather than the time of vendor mandate?'”

NHR is also working with Matrix Telecom Inc. to maintain 18 classic Catalyst 6500s in its service provider network, according to the company’s manager of IP network services, who asked not to be identified. He  plans to keep the switches for as long as NHR can keep getting him replacement parts.

“As technology grows and evolves, we will need to upgrade them. Right now, my network is really stable. We’re not looking to do any major upgrades,” he said.

Other companies have been reluctant to use third-party support for network infrastructure because it is difficult to change course and get back on a Cisco support contract, Hanselman said. But with the classic Catalyst 6500, this worry is irrelevant. “Something bordering on antique becomes less of a concern,” he added.

Will Cisco stick to the Catalyst 6500 end-of-life dates?

Cisco has tried to retire elements of the Catalyst 6500 line in the past but has encountered pushback from customers. Some wonder if customer protest will stop this upcoming end-of-life.

“There are so many backbone nodes out there,” Schroth said. “[Customers] did not allow them to outdate CatOS, and they have not allowed them to remove the 6500 series. I believe this is more of a threat than an end-of-life. There is going to be a customer revolt and that date is going to slide.”

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

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