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Brocade HyperEdge: Manage a campus network as one giant switch stack

Brocade is previewing HyperEdge, a management layer technology that allows network managers to administer an entire campus network like they would manage a switch stack.

For years, network engineers have relied on the switch stack in network wiring closets to simplify network operations. But now Brocade claims it can simplify operations even further by replacing the traditional switch stack with a new technology that essentially turns the entire campus LAN into one giant stack.

HyperEdge, due out in the first half of 2013 as a software upgrade on Brocade’s FCX and ICX switches, is an alternative paradigm to the traditional switch stack that provides a single point of management for all HyperEdge-compatible switches, according to Joe Ammirato, Brocade’s senior director of product management. This technology establishes a single management IP address for all the switches in the network. This way, an engineer can log into one switch in the HyperEdge network, and configure the entire network instantly in CLI. HyperEdge will initially only apply to access layer switches, but Ammirato hinted that Brocade will eventually extend the technology to other layers of the network.

“Today you have to touch each piece of equipment [or each stack],” said Scott McDowell, telecommunications network supervisor with Yadtel Group, a North Carolina-based rural service provider. “With [HyperEdge], with one single command you can make a change over the whole entire network. It also enables easy upgrades and would reduce human error. We do everything by command line, and if just one piece is broken, it can take it all down.”

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Stacked switches made individual wiring closet management much simpler, but as the number of those wiring closets has grown, a new level of complexity has crept into networks.

“Stackables had their place in businesses but you have had to manage those stacks individually,” said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. “With stackable switches, you gave up the ability to manage things from a central location for cost effectiveness. You could telnet into individual stacks, but you couldn’t manage them as a single network entity. Let’s say you want to add a new ACL; you would have to configure each stack individually. If the network is big enough, that can take days.”

Because of this centralized management, HyperEdge will dramatically change how enterprises manage their access layer. “Let’s say you have 100 stacks throughout your entire university campus and one of the elements in one of those stacks fails. With the HyperEdge domain, you can do an RMA [Return Merchandise Authorization], remove that failed switch, and plug in the new switch. When you plug it into the HyperEdge domain, it gets automatically discovered and the master configuration gets pushed to it, said Ammirato.

New entry level ICX switches: For switch stack today, HyperEdge tomorrow

Brocade also announced two new stackable switches that will eventually support HyperEdge: the ICX 6450 and ICX 6430. These switches are available in 24- and 48-port Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) models, with or without enhanced Power over Ethernet (PoE+). The ICX 6430 features four additional 1 GbE ports for uplinks and stacking. The ICX 6450 has four 1/10 GbE uplink and stacking ports. These switches will begin shipping later this month.

Ammirato didn’t offer specific pricing, but he claimed the baseline ICX 6430 will cost 30 to 50% less than Cisco Catalyst 2960, depending on which features an enterprise needs on the 2960. For instance, stacking is default on the ICX switches but not on the Catalyst 2960.

HyperEdge changes lifecycle management of stackable switches

HyperEdge technology also allows engineers to mix and match individual switches without a full rip and replace. In a traditional switch stack, all the elements must be identical. So if the features and horsepower of a stack can’t support the evolving needs of an enterprise, a network engineer will have to rip and replace the entire stack.

“You may buy an entry level, stackable device that just does Layer because that's all you think you need in your access layer -- no multicast, no IPv6,” Ammirato said. “With HyperEdge, you can mix those basic, entry level stackables with premium stackables that have advanced features like multicast, virtual route forwarding, or any other networking features that require more processing power.”

This approach could allow enterprises to extend the life of those entry-level stackable switches. It also prevents them from having to overprovision, Ammirato said. For instance, a hospital might have a technology plan that anticipates the deployment of HD video conferencing within a few years. Rather than provision for those services years in advance, engineers can install entry-level ICX 6430s today, and mix in the higher-powered ICX 6610 to support video a couple years later.

McDowell has Brocade infrastructure installed in Yadtel’s service provider network, and is testing the new ICX 6430 as a potential enterprise closet switch.  HyperEdge, he says, should extend the life of switches like the 6430.

“I could see that piece of equipment sitting in our network for 10-plus years, while the way the industry works today, the life of equipment is three or four years. With HyperEdge you can mix and match,” McDowell said.

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

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