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Extreme switch aims to cut out the middleman

One analyst says the vendor's new Aspen line of edge switches hammers the competition with core-quality performance, but Extreme's new two-tier networking paradigm may not be an easy sell.

Extreme Networks Inc. is using its new multipurpose switch line to highlight the growing demand that VoIP places on enterprise networks, and to suggest a simpler way to design them.

Today the Santa Clara, Calif.-based networking vendor released its Aspen 8800 series switches, positioned as edge devices with the density and throughput necessary for the network core.

Available in two models, the six-slot 8806 and 10-slot 8810, the Aspen release is highlighted by an accompanying 48-port Gigabit Ethernet I/O module with built-in power over Ethernet (PoE) capability to support IP phones, as well as PC and wireless access point connections.

According to the company, the device's internal power supplies can support up to 432 Class 1 or 2 devices, as defined by the IEEE, and as many as 333 Class 3 devices. Extreme vice president of product management Varun Nagaraj said the PoE capabilities, combined with its other core-grade features, make Aspen a superior edge alternative to stackable switches, especially for companies launching VoIP.

"We believe the move to voice over data raises the bar in how available the edge of your network needs to be," Nagaraj said. "Up until now, stackable 'pizza box' switches have been a safe way to go because you can have a bunch of spares on the shelf."

But with Aspen's release, Nagaraj said Extreme has combined all the features essential to VoIP -- PoE support, high port density and self-healing to maintain uptime and avoid reboots -- in a chassis-based design that's easier to centrally manage.

Also available is a 48-port gigabit module without PoE, a 24-port module with gigabit interface converter support and a 4-port 10 Gigabit Ethernet module.

Along with the release, Extreme is encouraging enterprises to take advantage of the Aspen series to collapse the edge and aggregation layers together. That paradigm, Nagaraj said, enables better quality voice connections, greater availability, increased security and simpler management because there are fewer devices on the network.

With fewer devices on the network, not only are there fewer points of failure, but also fewer hops are required for data to reach its destination, something that's especially important for voice traffic. Plus, he said, the stackable edge switches that many enterprises use today to support limited VoIP implementations won't provide the quality of service and reliability that will be necessary in the months and years to come.

Since the dual-tier strategy in many cases mandates a drastic change in the way networks are built, Nagaraj admitted that it may make more sense for companies moving into new facilities and designing architectures from the ground up, as opposed to those trying to make the most of legacy equipment. Still, he said, any company implementing VoIP and aiming for 99.999% uptime should consider a two-tier architecture.

"If you're evaluating aggregation or edge switches today, make sure you're buying equipment that's capable of serving both purposes," Nagaraj said. For example, a company could use an Aspen switch solely in an aggregation role today, but over time transition it into the role of the edge switch as well.

Joel Conover, principal analyst with Sterling, Va.-based research firm Current Analysis, said the new switching platform represents Extreme at its best. He said as an aggregation switch, it easily outclasses competitors such as Cisco Systems Inc.'s Catalyst 4500 and 6500 series, 3Com Corp.'s 7700 family and Nortel Networks Ltd.'s Passport 8600 series.

However, Conover said Extreme's two-tier vision is a tough sell.

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"Changing the way companies build their networks is very difficult," Conover said. "They build networks in three tiers for distance, reliability and for logistics. When organizations build facilities, they build for that three-tier design."

Still, he wouldn't be surprised if 10% of Extreme's customers attempt the two-tier model, adding that they can always transition back to three tiers as well.

One customer making a go of the two-tier model is Luxottica Group S.p.A., owner of the Lenscrafters eyewear chain. Enterprise architect Steve Bosch said his company is using Aspen in conjunction with Extreme's Alpine 3808 switch to support 600 workstations and IP phones in its new Mason, Ohio, corporate office.

While Bosch said Luxottica considered purchasing Extreme's BlackDiamond 10,000 series core switch for a reduced price, the Aspen provided the same core switch features while enabling him to consolidate at the edge.

"With a converged infrastructure, I see that the traditional method of routing packets doesn't always cut it," Bosch said. "Being able to take the network down to two layers essentially gives us the kind of uptime and resiliency we wanted."

Per-port pricing for the Aspen series starts at $350 for PoE-enabled gigabit ports, and $3,500 or 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports.

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