Cisco Systems is planning to take its policy-based networking capabilities closer to the desktop with a line of intelligent switches it will begin rolling out in the next six months.
The hardware promises to allow network managers to prioritise traffic over more of the network, giving them greater control of the policies they set.
Sources familiar with Cisco's plans said the company will employ the architecture of its Catalyst 8500 routing LAN backbone switch in the forthcoming family of workgroup and desktop switches, dubbed the Catalyst 6000 line.
The move will give the company a critical toehold for setting priorities among applications and users at the point where traffic packets enter the LAN. Observers said this type of reach will be necessary if the promise of policy-based networking - which conceptually is designed to apply business rules to network performance - is to be fulfilled.
Whereas Cisco rival 3Com is bringing priority-setting capability to the desktop by adding this type of intelligence to network interface cards, Cisco has until now concentrated on keeping policy at the core of the network, by installing priority setting only on routers and smart switches. Relegating this function to the core has limited Cisco's approach, observers said.
"If you can't deliver the policy capability to the piece of equipment that's closest to the user, you can't guarantee that the service assigned to the end user gets to him," said Sam Alunni, an analyst at Sterling Research, in the US.
Cisco's strategy for policy-based networking in the LAN has so far focused on marking the "Type of Service" field in an IP header to give each packet the right level of priority on Cisco devices throughout the network. This function has been limited to routers and to Layer 3-capable switches such as the Catalyst 8500 and 5500 series. These series usually aggregate traffic from desktop and workgroup switches.
The coming line of smaller switches will be able to examine packets for user and application information - including TCP port numbers assigned to applications - and mark packets for priority before they are sent to the core of the LAN. In addition, the line will be able to use quality-of-service mechanisms such as per-flow queuing for rapidly forwarding high-priority traffic.
An IT executive at a large enterprise said being able to apply priorities in a large workgroup switch could help make policy-based networking a reality.
"I could definitely see the benefit of doing that, as long as it were easy to implement," said Eric Kuzmack, a senior analyst at Gannett, in the US.
Cisco's plan to take Layer 3 switching closer to the desktop is a path already followed by rivals in addition to 3Com, including Cabletron and Nortel's Bay Networks unit. Both are working on policy-based systems of their own.
These switches will bring to departments and workgroups some features that are valued in backbone switches, including application awareness and IP Multicast support.
"Customers are very reluctant to look at full-blown routing to the desktop or wiring closet, but they do need some of the features we have typically not found in the older switches," said Esmeralda Silva, a US-based analyst at International Data Corporation (IDC).
Cisco officials declined to comment on unannounced products.