Forget about spruiking about speeds and feeds. When it comes to the latest generation of networking switches, they require a business-focused sell.
You are about to witness a feat that will no doubt astonish and amaze you. They said it could never be done, but at ARN we like to think of ourselves as the kind of publication that can achieve the unachievable. In a single four-page feature, ARN will explain exactly what all this high-end networking jingo means. Layer 3, Layer 4, Layer-whatever switching, QoS, VOIP, policy-based management - it will all soon make perfect sense to you.
Actually, that's too easy. Instead we will make use of only two little words to define exactly what all these acronyms and marketing catchwords mean. Yes, you read correctly - two words. Are you ready? Each and every one of the above are purely and simply . . . (drumroll please) "enabling technologies".
For too long the networking industry bogged itself down in technical debates, arguing whether a "Layer 3 switch" was really a switch or whether it was a router. Is Layer 4 switching anything other than a marketing buzzword? Which standard was going to be the one that best enabled quality of service (QoS)?
In the mire, what was forgotten, and thankfully what is being rediscovered, is that businesses deploy technology for the simple reason that it improves their business.
The latest and greatest networking technology is especially significant today not so much because it delivers better performance and superior bandwidth but because it enables applications that will improve the user's bottom line.
This should, of course, be a godsend for networking resellers and integrators. After all, there is no easier sell than to say to a customer for every dollar you spend you'll get two back.
Layer upon layer
A year ago, Layer 3 switches, which are essentially routers that perform at switching speeds, were all the buzz. But as far as business benefits went, Layer 3 switches didn't have much of a story to tell. Sure a user could improve the performance of their network, but essentially a network that incorporated Layer 3 switches was exactly the same beast as a traditional network based on routers and Layer 2 switches. (Routers at the core of a network were simply phased out for cheaper, faster Layer 3 switches.)Today, Layer 3 is as much a commodity product as the standard Layer 2 switch, according to Nortel's director of product marketing Allan Pettigrew. Today, a leading-edge network will incorporate Layer 4 switching, he said. (Technologists actually argue that the term Layer 4 switching is a misnomer because you can't do switching without addressing, and there is no addressing at Layer 4. See sidebar: Layer 4 switching is hype, page 78.)Layer 4 switches are able to give preferential treatment to traffic based on the application source. For example, a user can set up their network (or even better they can pay the reseller to do it for them) so that their mission-critical SAP traffic is given priority over Web traffic.
Unlike Layer 3 switching, this has significant ramifications for what a company can get out of their network and how they can improve their business and their bottom line.
But first, it also has significance for the role of the reseller and integrator. While previously many resellers and integrators have specialised in selling, installing and managing network infrastructures, the move to Layer 4-aware networks smudges the lines of demarcation between the network infrastructure and the server.
"It restores the focus of networks back onto delivering applications and being able to differentiate yourself based on your ability to deliver, measure and manage how apps are delivered," said Cabletron's marketing manager Simon Rice. "In doing so, it is really bridging the gap between those resellers that have focused purely on the network and those that have concentrated on the servers and applications. You really now have to be much more application-focused when you're designing a network.
"Certainly, the possibility is there that as these technologies come together, it may end up changing the way the channel works."
That might mean that narrowly focused resellers and integrators need to broaden their area of expertise, or perhaps they must partner more effectively or even merge with companies with complementary skill sets.
This new switching technology also gives resellers greater opportunity to provide value-add to the customer, according to Rice. Because a network that is Layer 4-aware allows management software to track exactly who is using what application and how they're using it, resellers can provide users with better management options, consulting and reports with the aim of enabling the user to get maximum productivity out of their network.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. According to Phil Belcher, Cisco Australia's director for enterprise, the real value-add that resellers and integrators should be concentrating on is partnering with the customer, with the aim of enabling them to roll out new applications so as they can improve their business processes and the bottom line.
Not so flat
Belcher rebukes the argument that the enterprise networking market will be flat or will even go backwards over the next year as corporates and government departments bed down or work on fixes for the millennium bug.
He claims that the business benefits associated with this latest generation of networking equipment will be too compelling for enterprises to ignore.
"Everyone selling into the enterprise space in the IT industry needs to think about how they are going to provide their customers with a competitive advantage," Belcher said.
"Resellers must go and talk to their customers about new ways of doing business and that is going to be what drives the requirement for these products and for resellers' services. Talk about how implementing these technologies will provide tangible business benefits."
Layer 4-aware networks, for example, help justify ERP systems like those of SAP, PeopleSoft and Oracle because the user can rest assured that the network won't let down a lengthy and expensive implementation.
After all, what's the point in spending millions on an SAP implementation if the data can't get to where it's supposed to because the network is congested.
The ability to prioritise traffic so that mission-critical applications always have enough bandwidth ensures this need never be a problem.
Perhaps more revolutionary, however, is the fact that this ability to prioritise traffic is part of the foundation for enabling users to bring together their voice and data infrastructures.
"With Layer 4 awareness and the ability to prioritise traffic, organisations can seriously start to look at integrating voice into their IP infrastructure," Belcher said. "That's the sort of thing that is going to drive the market for resellers. It is going to exponentially increase the demand for new networks."
Giving users the ability to plug IP phones into the LAN and their computers into the phone will drive new telephony applications. For example, Belcher pointed to call centres as an obvious place where the bringing together of voice data can benefit a business. The ability to prioritise video traffic, too, would enable exciting applications like video-based learning and corporate communications as well as videoconferencing.
According to Nortel's Pettigrew, the initial demand for such applications, and therefore for this technology, is coming from large corporations, in particular financial services companies. Educational institutions, which are typically early adopters of new networking technologies, have also been quick to look towards this technology as they look to roll out multicast video for virtual learning applications.
Saving a buck
Not all customers, and particularly smaller ones, can immediately recognise the opportunity for them to improve their productivity or profitability through the deployment of new network-aware applications. However, there aren't too many customers who won't jump at the chance to save a few dollars.
With the ability to integrate voice and data infrastructures together, organisations can reap substantial cost savings, according to vendors, because they then have only one infrastructure to manage instead of two.
This will eventually make the technology attractive to smaller organisations and branch offices, which typically don't have the in-house skills necessary to manage complex infrastructure.
Nortel, for example, will bring out a Layer 4 switch which is a complete branch office networking solution in a single box, according to Pettigrew.
The switch will incorporate a soft PABX to enable voice traffic while the Layer 4 capabilities enables the user to prioritise the traffic to ensure voice quality doesn't degrade due to network congestion.
"Smaller organisations really want to cut out the costs associated with running two separate infrastructures. Just by reducing the number of maintenance staff, for example, you can significantly reduce running costs," Pettigrew said.
"As a result, we see voice over IP being a huge driver for new unified networks in the small business market over the next 12 months."
Cabletron's Rice is even more bullish about the potential for this technology at the low end of the market. He has said that Cabletron has just enabled Layer 4 awareness on a range of switches, right down to its low-end SmartSwitch 2000.
"I think that right off the bat this is technology that everyone should be able to take advantage of. The starting price for this technology is really not very high at all."
The argument typically levelled against the need for high-end switching features like the ability to prioritise traffic is that if you have enough bandwidth, which is relatively cheap today, you don't need to bother about quality of service because there is no congestion.
However, Rice counter-argues that this sets the user on a continuous upgrade cycle (which isn't necessarily a bad thing for resellers) of having to buy new equipment every time the network starts to congest.
Layer 4 switches have a longer life span, he says, because even when the network begins to congest the user does not need to upgrade because the switch handles the traffic more intelligently (although, this really just means it is more selective about which packets it drops).
Rice also makes the point that any Layer 3/Layer 4 switch is well-suited to a smaller organisation because it means they don't have to buy a separate router to hook onto the Internet.
"For a smaller organisation, it makes it a lot easier to natively connect to the Internet," Rice said.
Of course, why any customer will require advanced switching capabilities (if at all) is largely determined by their own individual set of business needs and requirements. As such, it must be remembered that this technology is a business sell, not a technology sell, and that the reseller or integrator needs to have an intimate knowledge of the customer's business and work processes. The reseller or integrator needs to switch from simply serving as the customer's supplier to being a business partner. And that can't be bad.
The next layer
Networking hardware will continue to look deeper into packets so as to more productively and effectively queue and forward packets. According to Cisco's Andrew Smallridge, next-generation networks and switches will be Layer 7 aware, meaning they can look at the applications within an application. For example, within SAP you want to assign a higher priority to mission-critical data than to SAP printing.
Win a switch from Kingmax
Kingmax is offering ARN readers the chance to win a 4 port Kingmax hub. To win, send your funniest networking joke to email@example.com. Winners will be announced in the July 7 issue.
Recent additions to Kingmax's switching family include the SmartGroup Switch KSS-4136 and KSS-4324 which support 10/100Mbps auto-negation on each port. The switches offer virtual grouping which provides a way to implement security and optimise traffic flows and link aggregation for eliminating network bottlenecks.
The SpeedStack Switch KS-4086 dual speed switch also features 10/100Mbps auto-negation and an uplink port so switches can be stacked for scalability.
Layer 4 switching is hype
by Tony Rybczynski
Layer 4 switching is an illusion. You can't do switching without addressing, and there is no addressing at Layer 4. Layer 4 is an end-point function; Layer 3 does the addressing. But application awareness at Layer 4 and up - across your network or in front of your server farms - can solve real business problems.
Layer 4 switching technologies use application information to provide preferential treatment in the switch. This application awareness is very important in achieving two key objectives for users: preferential treatment for certain applications and end users, and server load balancing and improved server application resiliency.
In an ideal world, applications would indicate their requirements using Differentiated Services, Integrated Services or IEEE 802.1p protocols. But most current applications can't do this. Therefore, application awareness is built into intelligent Layer 2 switches at the workgroup level, routing switches at the campus level, and routers and enterprise network switches at the WAN-edge level.
Server load balancing is less an end-to-end network function than an end-point optimisation function, which again requires application awareness. To this end, a specialised class of products referred to as server switches, or server load balancers, has emerged. These products provide three levels of functionality, all geared toward choosing the best available server to handle client requests.
The simplest form of functionality provides balancing and redundancy on a local basis. The next level adds content awareness, allowing a customer query to be handled differently from a customer order. The third level extends the functions of the previous two levels across geographically dispersed servers and redirects traffic based on server proximity. Server switches require a high degree of customisability at layers 4 to 7 because the possibilities are unlimited.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Under Nortel Networks Unified Networks vision, we see the convergence of data and telephony enabling a whole new range of applications. Delivering preferential treatment through application-aware networking across the enterprise not only meets the needs of data applications, but also enables new unified applications, such as packet telephony and interactive multimedia. The future for server switches is even more exciting, as they become an element of Internet-enabled call centres (or telephony-enabled Web centres) that blend all kinds of traffic of a company's choosing to enhance customer care, broaden markets and grow business.
What's new from . . . Nortel
Nortel Networks announced in April two Layer 3 switches that deliver quality of service (QoS) by queuing traffic based on application.
The Accelar 8000 line consists of six- and 10-slot modular switches that can sit on a network's edge or anchor a backbone network. The switches are designed to scale up to 128 Gigabit Ethernet ports and 384 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports.
But the Accelar 8000's highlight is an Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) that classifies and queues traffic based on source and destination media access control and IP addresses, and at TCP and User Datagram Protocol port addresses.
Users can define network access and resource allocation policies with Nortel's Optivity Policy Manager application, and the ASIC will enforce them by shuttling traffic into one of eight priority queues at each Accelar 8000 port, says Dave Roberts, Accelar product manager at Nortel's Bay Networks division.
The Accelar 8000 can perform all of these functions at wire-speed with no detectable impact on switch performance, Nortel claims. This ability will be key in supporting applications such as SAP R/3, telephony and HTTP.
A downside to the Accelar 8000 is that users will have to swap out Layer 2 interface modules if they want "full-featured" Layer 3 capabilities on each blade. The six-slot and ten-slot switches are priced at $11601 and $ 16312 ex tax respectively.
Tel (02) 9437 6122
What's new from . . . Cisco
Cisco last month revealed its supervisor modules for its Catalyst 5000 series workgroup switches that will add IP, IPX, and IP multicast switching across sub-nets, as well as Layer 4 application awareness. Using Layer 4 port numbers to identify applications allows switches to give priority to some applications over others. The modules, called the Catalyst Supervisor II G and III G modules, will allow the workgroup switches to handle delay-sensitive traffic, such as packetised voice calls, all the way down to the workgroup level. The Catalyst Supervisor II G and III G modules are priced at $17,544 and $27,296 respectively.
Tel 1800 678 808
What's new from . . . Cabletron
Cabletron Systems has just announced new software that lets users more easily set and enforce quality of service (QoS) and security policies.
It also unveiled higher-density, higher-performance LAN switching modules to support the QoS enhancements, and a new gigabit router optimised for connecting switched workgroups to server farms.
Cabletron's firmware upgrade to its SmartSwitch 2000, 6000 and 9000 (free to customers with a current service contract) allows users to download Layer 4 QoS and security software into flash memory on those switches. The software will enable the switches to classify, prioritise and filter traffic by reading the TCP and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) port numbers of the applications running on the network.
To enhance the new Layer 4 QoS features, Cabletron will also unveil switching modules for its high-end SmartSwitch 9000 that double the switch's current port density and increase performance fivefold.
The new modules allow for up to 336 10/100Mbps ports or 56 Gigabit Ethernet ports in a single chassis. Performance now scales to more than 35 million packet/sec and 45Gbps of bandwidth, Cabletron says.
There are six new modules for the SmartSwitch 9000, including two 16-port 10/100Mbps Ethernet boards, one with an ATM or FDDI uplink, and the other with dual Gigabit Ethernet ports.
The new modules also include three 24-port 10/100 boards: one with copper interfaces, the others with either single-mode or multi-mode fibre interfaces. The last new module is a four-port Gigabit Ethernet card.
For interconnecting the high-performance, QoS-enabled workgroups, Cabletron will roll out the SmartSwitch Router 2100. This new router sports eight fixed-configuration Gigabit Ethernet ports for dedicated server farm connectivity. The SmartSwitch 2100 is priced at $25,000.
Tel (02) 9950 5900
What's new from . . . Xyplex
NBase-Xyplex this month announced it was shipping its Layer 3 Gigabit switch into Australia. Officials claim the GFS3016 switch is the first on the market to integrate Coarse Wave Division Multiplexing (CWDM) and Gigabit Ethernet.
This makes it ideally suited for metropolitan area networks (MAN) with long-distance links of up to 20km as both ATM and Gigabit Ethernet can be combined over DWDM technology.
The six-slot modular design of the GS3016 can support a maximum port density of 16-Gigabit Ethernet ports, 62 10/100Base-TX ports or 32 100Base-FX ports.
What's new from . . . 3Com
3Com this month made good on its pledge to map Ethernet-to-ATM quality of service (QoS) by unveiling new modules for its SuperStack II and CoreBuilder LAN switches.
The modules sport new Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC) - called ZipChip 3 and FIRE - that will let users enforce policies for ensuring consistent QoS in mixed Ethernet and ATM networks.
3Com's Ethernet-to-ATM QoS mapping strategy is intended to deliver consistent QoS across different network media, which is vital to voice, data and video convergence. If QoS fluctuates among different media types, the result is poor service that negates the other chief benefits of convergence: reduced equipment and service costs.
3Com rivals FORE Systems and Cisco claim that they too can provide Ethernet-to-ATM QoS mapping, though their implementations may differ from 3Com's.
3Com's ZipChip 3 modules include an OC-3/ OC-12 blade for 3Com's SuperStack II 1100 and 3300 switches, and a 10/100Mbps Ethernet card for the company's CoreBuilder 7000HD switch.
The OC-3/ OC-12 module features a single ATM port that is software configurable to operate at either 155M or 622Mbps. The module is intended to provide a single uplink from a stack of SuperStack IIs to a 3Com CoreBuilder 9000 ATM backbone switch. Also, multiple uplinks can be installed in a stack for redundancy.
The 10/100 Ethernet card, dubbed the 7900, sports 36 10/100 copper ports with RJ-45 connectors. It is designed to connect desktops to ATM building, campus and metropolitan-area backbone networks anchored by the CoreBuilder 9000.
The FIRE ASIC-based modules are OC-3 and OC-12 ATM cards for 3Com's CoreBuilder 3500 Layer 3 switch. The modules support either two OC-3 ports or one OC-12 interface. They are designed to route traffic between ATM emulated LANs with or without the Multiprotocol-over-ATM standard.
Missing from 3Com's Ethernet-to-ATM QoS mapping program are ZipChip 3-based Ethernet modules for the CoreBuilder 9000. This would let users connect to the ATM backbone using Ethernet uplinks instead of ATM. 3Com officials say these modules will emerge early next year.
The ZipChip 3 module for the SuperStack II 1100 and 3300 switches costs $US6000 and will be available in the US in July. The 7900 module costs $15,000 and will be available in the fourth quarter. The FIRE modules for the CoreBuilder 3500 cost $10,000 for OC-3 and $12,000 for OC-12. Local pricing and availability is yet to be announced.
Tel 1800 644 606