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Cisco's new switch the GI Joe of the network

Whoever thought an Ethernet switch could help you make your train? Cisco's military-grade Catalyst 2955 switch is bringing Ethernet to new, more rugged environments, including a public transit authority that is using the appliance to keep its data, and its commuters, moving quickly.

Ethernet is making its way out of the wiring closet, onto the factory floor, out the door, down the street and into the subway. In hopes of cornering yet another market, Cisco Systems Inc. has released a new rugged Ethernet switch designed to move data in any of these more adverse environments.

This spring, Cisco announced the availability of its Catalyst 2955 switch. This is the GI Joe of Cisco switches. It meets military standards for temperature, humidity and vibration. For example, whereas a normal switch can withstand temperatures between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius, this one can work in temperatures of minus 40 to 60 degrees Celsius.

Larry O'Connell, product manager for Cisco's Ethernet access group, said that Cisco is entering this market because demand for Ethernet now exists in environments where it wasn't needed just five or 10 years ago. Manufacturers, goods transporters and automobile makers are all becoming more data centric. These industries are gravitating toward Ethernet because it is standardized and allows traffic to be managed reliably, he said.

Cubic Corp., based in San Diego, is one of the companies bringing Ethernet to mass transit. It is deploying the new switch in a project for the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) commuter rail system, which runs between New York and New Jersey.

Instead of old-fashioned tokens or disposable swipe cards, the system uses smart cards. These cards, which commuters hold onto for more than a few trips, contain information not only about the amount of money on the card, but also about the user. And they do no need to be swiped.

When a commuter walks through a turnstile, the card is read from within the commuter's wallet or purse. The information from the card is checked against a database stored locally to ensure the card is valid, and then the commuter simply moves on.

So does the data. The commuter's information is transmitted back to a data center where his or her account is debited. Since this a multiagency system, accounts are settled on the back end between transit agencies. Information about the commuter and the time he walked through the turnstile is stored to help planners better understand usage patterns.

As an added convenience, systems that access a commuter's credit card account can automatically replenish cards.

All of this requires the movement of a lot of data, as well as a high quality of service on the network to ensure that everything is moving quickly, said Steve Brunner, Cubic's senior director of programs. The Cisco switch was a natural choice for the job, he said.

But Cisco is not entering an empty market. There is plenty of competition, said Harry Forbes, a senior analyst with the Dedham, Mass.-based research firm, ARC Advisory Group. Vendors such as Germany-based Hirschmann Electronics GmbH and others have already staked out a place in the hardened-switch market.

But Cisco's switch is bringing in different features, such as improved quality of service and a level of management not available in the competitors' switches, said O'Connell.

The ability to manage devices on the network and provide quality of service will be important over time, especially in environments such as manufacturing, Forbes said. Still, he said, it remains to be seen how soon companies will make the jump to Ethernet and whether they will see the need for Cisco's high-end management functionality.

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