The edge of reason

Vendors are packing more intelligence into the edge switches of LAN infrastructures. But while they have obvious benefits, these smart switches bring with them a set of management hassles for Middle East enterprises.

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By  Sathya Ashok Published  June 30, 2007

"How many enterprises actually need 10G or PoE (Power over Ethernet) on their switches right now?," asks Neil Rickard, VP for research at Gartner.

His question is indicative of a raging debate between people who assert enterprises do not need highly intelligent switches yet and those who state its better to prepare now for the future. Overall, switches are proving to be a hotbed of disagreement.

The discussion is especially intense in the Middle East region where industry watchers like Rickard estimate that enterprises do not use many of the features that switches bring along today, even when they buy them.

But before we launch into the debate, its essential to understand what the new age switches actually entail for enterprises.

Evolving in stages

Over the last few years, switches as part of the network infrastructure have gone through a quiet revolution of sorts, where the proverbial hub has been slowly transformed by vendors into much more than just a dumb, connecting terminal.

"The market has reached a point where it is no longer driven by improvements in speed and performance." says Rickard.

As the hardware element of switches has become increasingly commoditised and enterprise customer needs become driven by convergence, vendors have moved to building much more into switches. In other words, a combination of market factors has resulted in the move of more critical intelligence to the edge.

"The market is evolving rapidly and intelligent LAN switches have become important elements of an enterprise network. Just looking at the Layer 3 area alone, switches are becoming more relevant because of the number and kind of applications that they are increasingly supporting," says Dean Smith, director switching and routing for emerging markets at Cisco.

One more to go

At the Layer 3 level, switches are taking on more functionality and features as vendors try to pack in as much as possible to differentiate themselves.

"Over the last few years, there has been growing convergence. Consequently most vendors have introduced QoS (Quality of Service) in the LAN infrastructure, through switches, to prioritise and protect voice traffic," says Gartner's Rickard.

"Intelligence in switches predominantly focuses on personalised services, user-based policies and enhanced network visibility. Switches located in the core layers of an enterprise focus on enhanced performance, traffic management and QoS to ensure applications such as VoIP, online video editing, datacentre backups, IPTV etc. can be delivered throughout the enterprise," says Val Oliva, director of product marketing for Foundry Networks.

"The most intelligent edge switches today are equivalent to the core switch functionality of the past. Standard options like IP Routing, RIP (Routing Information Protocol), OSPF (Open Shortest Path First) and even VRRP (Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol) can be found on these switches today. This is however only the beginning of the development of intelligent edge switches," says Louis Helmbold, senior consultant of HP Procurve's networking business for the MEAM region.

While switches continue to take on functions previously restricted to the router, the most important trend in the past few years has been the move to build security elements into LAN switches at the edge.

"Security is the biggest evolving factor among switches today. It is driving change to a large extent. Specialist and general purpose security is being built into edge switches. This includes everything from filtering content and NAC (Network Access Control) features to even antivirus elements," says Gartner's Rickard.

"Security has evolved over sometime now and it is quite incredible. Solutions such as IPS (Intrusion Prevention Systems) and firewalls are being set at the periphery.

Functionality in switches has also grown to protect networks against malicious intent such as DoS (Denial of Service) attacks. These switches in features go a long way in effectively protecting the network," adds Smith from Cisco.

Switches today provide five major intelligent themes to end users, according to Majdi Babaa, and security is a crucial part of that total intelligence package.

Babaa says: "We at Extreme provide customers with elements one might not find in other vendor products. Along with working on the security standards that other vendors offer, Extreme offers users the options of having virtual switches on a single physical line, each of which can be assigned to different departments. This ensures that the switches operate in relative isolation."

The other side of the coin

The adoption of such intelligent switches has been on an upswing in the Middle East region for reasons including the lower apparent cost on these switches, integration of functionality, fewer devices involved and therefore, less management effort.

"The region has a whole lot of greenfield sites. Couple that with the fact that many enterprises here tend to go for the latest and the best in technology and one can understand that intelligent edge switches have caught on in the Middle East," states Simon Wilson, Nortel portfolio leader in enterprise data solutions.

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