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Sizing up network edge switch offerings for a campus LAN

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The campus edge switch market evolves, offers new innovations

The campus edge LAN switching market has evolved to offer a multitude of products boasting multi-gigabit port speeds -- there are more available port speed options than ever.

The campus edge LAN switch market is awake and roaring. The open networking movement is competing with traditional switching for market share. The vendor landscape has also changed. Not only have companies consolidated, but their market focus is changing. Developments in high-speed wireless networks, meantime, are also changing the face of campus edge switching, restating the boundary between the wired and wireless worlds.

There are numerous campus edge switch products. But there's no clear consensus among switch vendors about all the new developments. Some vendors feel that open networking is the most important development in the recent market, whereas others think virtual extensible LAN is the most important new technology in campus switching. Which vendors are right? A big part of that answer depends on each individual IT environment and its needs.

Here we examine the features and options available with traditional and open networking.

How traditional, proprietary switching has evolved

The LAN switching market is now more than 20 years old. Since the very beginning, proprietary has been the standard. Buying a switch from Cisco Systems, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) or D-Link always meant getting a device that consisted of that vendor's hardware, which only ran switch software from the same vendor. There was no alternative. But a lot has changed.

Years ago, switching hardware consisted of specialized application-specific integrated circuits that each vendor custom built. These circuits were expensive and undocumented to the outside world. But the market has shifted, as vendors like Broadcom, Marvell and Mellanox Technologies build and sell high-performance merchant silicon, or switching chips, that others can use instead of designing and building their own. Economies of scale make using merchant silicon very attractive for switch vendors. All of this has led to the birth and growth of open networking.

Open networking

Open networking is all about disaggregation; that is, separating the underlying switching hardware from the switching software. With open networking, the customer chooses the software from an OS vendor and the hardware upon which the OS can run from a device vendor.

Today, there are several network OS vendors, including Pluribus Networks, Pica8 and Cumulus Networks. Even silicon vendor Broadcom provides a generic network operating system. There's also software developed by the open source OpenSwitch Linux Foundation project.

There are more available port speed options than ever. Many are achieved using break-out cables and don't require dedicated ports of a given speed.

In addition, the Facebook-founded Open Compute Project is also involved in developing switching software. With this kind of activity from both commercial companies and the open source community, open networking may be well worth considering.

The shifting vendor landscape

The networking industry has seen a continuous consolidation of vendors, and the switching market is no exception. Aruba Networks and 3Com are now part of HPE. Force10 is part of Dell, which of course merged with EMC. Extreme Networks not only purchased Enterasys, but it also acquired the Nortel switch portfolio formerly owned by Avaya. And Ruckus Networks, a vendor of enterprise wireless LAN products, is now part of Arris Networks, which also picked up the switch product line of Brocade Communications Systems when Broadcom, which bought Brocade, decided it didn't want that part of the business.

Legacy vendors, such as Juniper Networks and Arista Networks, have turned their attention to enterprise and campus networks as they attempt to supplement their traditional service provider and hyperscale data center base. And while that's occurring, vendors such as D-Link and Netgear are taking an opposite tack, trying to woo enterprises as well as their established SMB and consumer-class segments.

D-Link, for example, offers 10 Gb Ethernet (GbE) switches that provide the throughput and port density required in campus edge deployments. D-Link switch hardware can also be used to run open networking OSes from companies like Pluribus Networks.

With many vendors focusing on the enterprise, there are plenty of companies and products to choose from -- something that generally isn't the case in a mature market.

The campus edge switch market and deployment considerations

Future articles will drill down into features that organizations should consider before making a campus- edge switch purchase. Here we will discuss some of the developments affecting edge switch deployments.

Wireless LAN. For years, an access point's (AP) maximum throughput was well under 1 Gbps. As a result, plugging an AP into a 1 Gbps switch port didn't impose any performance penalties. The advent of Wi-Fi 5, or 802.11ac, in 2013 dramatically changed that equation, allowing speeds of up to 3.4 Gbps. Wi-Fi 6 -- aka 802.11ax -- pushes that speed threshold to more than 10 Gbps. This means 1 GbE Power over Ethernet (PoE) switch ports are now bottlenecks.

The industry's response has been the release of a multitude of products boasting multi-gigabit port speeds. There are more available port speed options than ever: 1, 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 40, 100 and even 200 GbE links. Many of these are achieved using break-out cables and don't require dedicated ports of a given speed.

The proliferation of 10 GbE server connections has also led to oversubscription at the switch level, pushing the faster uplink speeds. Many edge switches might have one or two 10 GbE ports to serve as uplinks to the next layer of the network. So a switch with, say, two 10 GbE ports can support 20 1 GbE connections before it's oversubscribed, or has no more uplink bandwidth. But, add one or two 10 GbE server ports, and those ports alone will oversubscribe the uplink bandwidth.

Editor's note: Using extensive research into the campus edge switch market, TechTarget editors focused this article series on leading providers that offer enterprise-class switching gear -- supporting such functions as multi-rate gigabit throughput, advanced PoE and automated provisioning and configuration -- used to connect corporate networks to third-party networks. Our research included data from TechTarget surveys and reports from other well-respected research firms, including Gartner.

PoE. As access points become more powerful, they need more power. This, of course, is provided by the switch via PoE. Here, too, variations in a switch's PoE capability can limit AP choice.

APs are often located on ceilings to provide the best coverage. Because there are no power outlets available, the access points must rely on power being delivered by the switch cable connection. Providing separate power to an AP directly via wall connections is, at best, impractical. IoT and applications that require additional power, such as pan-tilt-zoom cameras, are another consideration. In those deployments, edge switches must be able to support the most recent PoE specification, 4PPoE, where all four pairs of wires are used to transmit power.

Simplification and automation. These are key drivers, particularly as switch and configuration requirements multiply. There's a push for zero-touch provisioning, self-healing networks and even self-restoring networks where other switches can automatically configure a newly replaced component. Underlying this trend is the use of open source tools, such as Ansible, that provide a large set of agentless IT automation tools.

Next up: An examination of switch features.

This was last published in March 2019

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