Building blocks

Switches and routers are the backbone of any network, so upgrading these products effectively is crucial for the enterprise. Businesses have always sought products with the clout necessary to handle applications but increasingly new features and innovative network designs are complicating the landscape, making the decision of which models to choose tougher than ever.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  September 23, 2004

|~|Majeed,-Faro_m.jpg|~|Foundry’s Farook Majeed highlights that many companies are asking for 10Gigabit capability even if they do not plan to utilise the bandwidth immediately. Companies want to take 10Gigabit to the edge, not necessarily at every port, but they want to be able to uplink at 10Gigabit.|~|Switches and routers are diverse product groups, with models carrying out a wide range of tasks in the wide area network (WAN) and local area network (LAN). But, whatever the purpose of the product, there is a number of fundamental criteria which end users must consider to get the best deal for their business. In some ways, the decision is easier for IT managers in today’s environment, while in other ways it is more difficult. Today’s IT economy is more mature, and network and IT managers are better informed than ever before, meaning that the days of businesses being bamboozled with tech speak by sharp tongued IT salesmen are gone. A tough economic situation, however, has raised the stakes for IT managers who must now fully justify their expenditure. The first key consideration is performance. The product has to do what it is supposed to and be capable of sufficient bandwidth to support the end user’s applications. Gigabit Ethernet is taking over from Fast Ethernet as the infrastructure of choice in the Middle East enterprise. This is borne out by IDC research, which shows that Gigabit Ethernet sales made up more than 50% of LAN switch port revenues in EMEA in Q1 and Q204. The thirst for increased bandwidth is being driven by enterprises using increasingly sophisticated applications to add value to their businesses. While it was once unusual to see anything other than data traffic on the network, voice and video traffic are becoming common in some businesses. “Enterprise customers are looking for network-wide solutions rather than products. To support this, networks must deliver predictable high performance for all traffic types,” says Chris Moore, regional manager, Extreme Middle East & North Africa. In the Middle East, companies have not been slow to utilise technology if it will boost business. One good example is the Qatar sports academy, Aspire, which has installed state of the art technology to monitor the progress of athletes. This generates a huge amount of information, which in turn feeds the need for increased network bandwidth. “We will use 3D modelling to assess the performance of athletes, [which] adds up to a lot of data, which is why we chose a Gigabit network,” says Soubhi Abdul Karim, IT manager, Aspire. Enterprises are not just looking at today’s bandwidth needs but they are also looking a step ahead. While only large companies and service providers are using 10Gigabit, as Gigabit Ethernet grows more popular, so the amount of traffic to the backbone will increase, leading to greater demand. This is why many enterprises embarking on a new network installation are making sure that their backbone network is 10Gigabit capable. “Lots of companies are asking for 10Gigabit capability even if they are not utilising the bandwidth yet,” says Farook Majeed, regional director, Foundry Networks. “They also want to take 10Gigabit to the edge, not necessarily at every port. They want to be able to uplink at 10Gigabit,” he adds. One such enterprise is the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ADCCI), which has invested in a 10Gigabit capable Foundry core switch. “Unwise companies upgrade when they realise the network can’t cater for the services they are required to provide,” says Mohamed Ahmed Al Neaimi, assistant director general for information technology & members relations, ADCCI. “The network is the pipeline and you have to be aware of how much is flowing through, now and in the future,” he adds. Greater bandwidth on the network and beefier performance from switches and routers has allowed vendors to build greater functionality into the products. This is particularly apparent in security. The increased speed and complexity of attacks on the network has led to a re-think among vendors. With greater reluctance to rely solely on desktop and server solutions there is a greater tendency to put protection on the edge of the network. With switches and routers now often coming with firewalls, VPN technology and encryption built-in, the knowledge needed when shopping for new models is clearly greater. Security arguably grabs the majority of the headlines, but with voice and data convergence and increased wireless functionality in the enterprise, vendors have had to adapt their networks to cope. “Foundry is following a wireless switch strategy. Wireless integration into layer 2, 3 switches poses challenges such as having to provide power over Ethernet before you can connect phones,” says Majeed. This places greater demand on router and switch performance and it can be a struggle for models to maintain wire speed, while having all of its innovative features turned on. Added features also bump up the cost of routers and switches but this is, in theory, offset by preventing downtime in the case of security and adding value with voice and wireless support. Technological innovation adds strings to the bow of the enterprise, but equally importantly it often paves the way for lower cost devices and drives mass adoption. The business is arguably on the cusp of one such development with considerable buzz surrounding 10 Gigabit Ethernet over copper (10GBase-T). Although the standard is expected to be ratified only in 2006, vendors are starting to release products they claim support its requirements. This is significant as copper-based transmission is more cost-effective than optical transmission, which is the currently favoured 10Gigabit cabling. If the products live up to the vendors’ claims then the next six months could see the cost of 10Gigbit networks rapidly decrease and allow many more businesses to take advantage. Switch vendors are gearing up for this development. Cisco and Foundry have already developed short distance 10GBase-T cabling solutions for the data centre environment and this will broaden out into the enterprise in the coming months. This issue will be central to the plans of many enterprise switch and router upgrades in the near future. This innovation will bring down costs across the board, but end users must look with care at the cost of different vendor’s models. Dell, D-Link and Adtran have recently entered the market and this added competition can only be a good thing for the end user. These vendors have pursued a strategy that can be broadly summarised as going after Cisco clients with similarly specified but cheaper models. “Cisco is very successful but its after sales support is very expensive, so that is where we have to attack and offer better value for money,” says Ed Werner, executive vice president, EMEA, Adtran. “End users are paying twice what they have to for the same quality,” he adds. While these Cisco alternatives undoubtedly have appeal, they have their work cut out overturning the networking giant’s number one position, or even putting a sizeable dent in its market share. Perhaps Cisco’s greatest strength is its brand and the fact that its dominance has made its training and certification programmes de facto standards for the networking world. The cost of products is important, but this is arguably a relatively straightforward and transparent matter. A traditionally thornier issue has been after sales costs, which often get left out of purchasing budgets but can add up to a tidy sum. However, although after sales support is sometimes portrayed in some quarters as almost an attempt to extort extra revenue from already cash strapped enterprises for solutions that don’t live up to expectations, support systems can be quite cost effective. For instance, a robust support package can take the place of extra investment in on-site IT staff. Plus, with the larger vendors especially, the scope of experts among the technical staff is broad, thus whatever the problem a vendor can often provide a specialist to tackle it. “We have always had good experience with Cisco. The products are not better than other brands but their support is the best in Dubai,” says Sameer Khoory, IT manager of the UAE’s e-TQM College. “The maintenance and support contract from Cisco is economic for us because we have one person in the IT department and it would be more expensive for us to employ technical staff for support. Plus Cisco has specialists in each field and it is impossible for us to employ a specialist in every area,” he adds. Cost and performance may be the two most often referenced points when upgrading switches or routers, but equally important is fitting the products into a coherent network strategy. Very few vendors come to the enterprise simply with boxed products to sell. The products are wrapped up in solutions that encompass software and management tools and touch on business processes that may cause the enterprise to re-consider its IT strategy. For example, HP and 3Com have come up with variations on network design that require a mindset shift from end users. A good example is HP’s adaptive edge infrastructure, which devolves the functionality that has traditionally been on the core switch to the edge switches. This is a natural step for vendors as the cutting edge features of last generation’s core models filter down to the edge models of this generation. “HP’s big idea is the adaptive edge,” says Ivan Kraemer, sales & marketing director, HP Procurve. “Don’t move traffic to the core if it doesn’t have to. Have an intelligent edge and let the core switches do what they are supposed to do — route traffic,” he adds. 3Com with its eXpandable Resilient Networking (XRN) technology works in a similar vein, though with the twist that the architecture is tweaked to enhance reliability. 3Com describes XRN as a school of thought, following a distributed architecture model. “The main advantage is resiliency,” says Hani Nofal, enterprise accounts manager, 3Com. “The core switches have back-up switches at different locations, so if the core fails, operation is not interrupted,” he explains. This kind of all-encompassing network solution can have both positive and negative repercussions. For instance, this increased effort by vendors can prove a useful resource for the enterprise. Vendors provide help and expertise in terms of consultancy and design. It may be the first time that users are upgrading their network, but it is likely the vendor has considerably more experience. A good example is 3Com’s participation in the Aspire implementation in Qatar. The vendor helped the sports centre to design its network and also provided practical support in ensuring that the network would be resilient, which was the academy’s main concern. This included a proof of concept that replicated part of the proposed Aspire network at the 3Com labs in London, so Aspire staff could see for themselves that the technology worked. On the other hand, wide-ranging changes to the network can cause disruption if users decide to opt for a new strategy and have to either ditch old products to fit or change business processes. It can also encourage vendor lock-in, although there is plenty of evidence that many enterprises in the Middle East prefer to have the network comprised of products from one vendor. “A one vendor switching and routing environment is less of a headache for IT people. With more than one vendor, there is the chance that they will blame each other when a problem occurs. Consistency and support are more important for us than having best of breed products,” says Khoory. Arguably, adhering to standards should allow end users to mix and match vendors with a minimum of problems. The networking world has traditionally been a bastion of proprietary technologies, for the simple reason that companies have been happy to pay extra for the innovative features they feel provide a business benefit. This approach is facing something of a backlash at the moment, however, as enterprises have encountered problems. Non-standardised technology is more difficult to use in conjunction with systems from other vendors and this can lead to a lot of hassle in today’s heterogeneous IT world. “Customers want best of breed, and no company provides the best solutions across the board. Compatibility is therefore key. That’s why we don’t come up with proprietary stuff, we work to standards,” says Mohamad Abdul Malak, regional sales director for Middle East, Pakistan & Central Africa at Juniper Networks. That said, for the enterprise that wants leading edge products, going for a proprietary technology is often the best way to go about it. “If you go with a faster is better mentality then it will lead you to proprietary technology but thinking is switching now to staying in line with standards. This might not lead to technically the best technology being deployed but standardisation will improve compatibility, ease of deployment and bring down prices,” says Kraemer. The world of switches and routers is deceptively complex. These unassuming devices are in fact the key to network and in these days of holistic IT planning, a decision made on switches can have far ranging repercussions for the enterprise. It is because of this that end users must keep business benefits clearly in focus even when dealing with ostensibly technical matters. The decision of whether or not to stay with a traditional network structure or go for something more innovative, to pursue best of breed products or opt for consistency in vendor across the network, will be coloured by each enterprise’s requirements and experiences.||**||

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