Catalyst 6500 upgrade: OpenFlow, LISP, next-gen VSS

Cisco will add new services to its Catalyst 6500 campus core switch, including OpenFlow, LISP and maybe fabric extenders.

Cisco is hinting that it will enhance the Catalyst 6500 in 2013 with OpenFlow support, fiber extension boxes and a successor to the Supervisor Engine 2T.

Since the advent of its Nexus data center switching line, Cisco has been repositioning the venerable Catalyst 6500-E as the leading option for campus cores. The company reaffirmed the platform's preeminence during the summer of 2011 when it announced the Supervisor Engine 2T (Sup 2T), which tripled the throughput capacity of the core switch. Now it appears the switch will also play a key role in Cisco's end-to-end software defined networking strategy.

Rob Soderbery, Cisco's senior vice president and general manager of enterprise networking, recently spoke with me about the roadmap for the Catalyst 6500 line.

Catalyst 6500 OpenFlow and software defined networking support

When Cisco outlined is software defined networking (SDN) strategy this summer, it emphasized programmability through onePK, its new set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that tie directly to Cisco hardware. But OpenFlow, the most commonly used SDN protocol, was more of an afterthought. Cisco said it would begin offering OpenFlow support on the Catalyst 3750-X and 3560-X switches primarily for use by university researchers, who have been experimenting with the technology.

More on the Catalyst 6500

How to manage the classic Catalyst 6500 end-of-life

Catalyst 6500 Sup 2T not necessarily for you

Sup 2T leaves classic Catalyst 6500 users behind. So what?

Now it appears Cisco's support of OpenFlow might extend to the Catalyst 6500 soon, giving customers end-to-end OpenFlow options in the core and the access layer. Soderbery said Cisco will support software defined networking in the Catalyst 6500 soon. He wouldn't specify whether it would actually support OpenFlow, but he said it would participate in a hybrid OpenFlow network.[Correction: This article originally stated that Cisco would support OpenFlow on the Catalyst 6500. Cisco confirms that it will support SDN, but it has not committed to OpenFlow on this device].

"The Catalyst 6500 sits in your core, and in your network today you might have hundreds or maybe thousands of network devices all connected into the core architecture," Soderbery said. "Often the Catalyst 6500 itself will not be a single OpenFlow domain talking to one x86 server that is programming 100,000 ports out there, but it might participate."

The Catalyst 6500 could serve as an OpenFlow aggregation node that interfaces with a conventional network architecture, he said.

"We'll be demonstrating an end-to-end SDN solution at Cisco Live London," Soderbery said.

Soderbery didn't specify what end-to-end SDN necessarily means in this context, but it's safe to say that Cisco will be demonstrating both onePK and OpenFlow in London.

Increased Catalyst 6500 redundancy with third-gen VSS

Cisco will release a third-generation version of its Virtual Switching System (VSS) feature within the next month or two that enhances the redundancy of the Supervisor Engine 2T on the Catalyst 6500.

VSS virtualizes a pair of Catalyst 6500 chassis so engineers can operate and manage them as a single image. The new version of VSS will improve Sup 2T module failover. VSS will have a feature called Quad-Supervisor Stateful Switchover. If a supervisor in one switch in a VSS pair fails, it will fail over to a supervisor in the other switch and recover within 200 milliseconds. Previously, if a customer ran dual supervisors in a Catalyst 6500, the switch would reboot during failover.[Correction: This article inaccurately stated that one Sup 2T module could operate a pair of Catalyst 6500s in VSS configuration. VSS only enables stateful failover between the modules].

"If you have two Catalyst 6500s sitting there with two Sup 2T supervisors, that's a single image. You can pull out three of those supervisors and that system will keep running," Soderbery said. "Having a next generation of redundancy and availability is a real concern. This is the core of your network. If you've had a silent failure on a supervisor that you don't know about and then you have a second supervisor failover that causes a failover, how well will VSS be able to deal with that environment?"

FabricPath, Fabric Extension for the Catalyst 6500?

The Sup 2T engine has led Cisco to explore ways to bring data center and WAN technologies to the campus, where use cases make sense. Soderbery wouldn't offer specifics, but he said Cisco will launch new services in the Catalyst 6500 in 2013. The possibilities include Location/Identifier Separation Protocol (LISP), as well as FabricPath and fabric extension (FEX), two technologies native to the Nexus product line.

The FEX feature would allow enterprises to deploy simple fabric extender boxes that are slaved to the Catalyst 6500, much like Nexus 2000 boxes function with Nexus 7000 switches. A FEX box operates like an external line card to the switch.

"All these technologies simplify the management of Layer 2 switching," Soderbery said. "You abstract the underlying boxes and you get a single image and simpler management environment."

LISP is already available on the Catalyst 6500 today. The protocol, which separates the location and identifier of an IP address, will enable more flexibility in how enterprises manage Layer 2 and Layer 3 boundaries in a campus network.

"For applications you have that don't want to see that complex L2/L3 boundary, you have a solution," Soderbery said. "LISP basically allows you to do L2/L3 abstraction."

These new services can be added to the Catalyst 6500 via a simple software upgrade if customers have the latest silicon in place on the chassis.

Another supervisor engine will follow the Sup 2T

Cisco is developing yet another supervisor engine for the Catalyst 6500. Details about the capabilities and the timing of the next engine are scarce, but Soderbery said Cisco is determined to drive up the processing horsepower of the platform to support 40 Gigabit Ethernet services.

"You have to have line-rate 40 gigabit processor capability, so we will continue to push ASIC performance with these boxes," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, news director.

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