Low-cost switch swarm offers flexibility

By Stephen Lawton

Inexpensive, high-performance LAN infrastructure devices have become plentiful. The question for network managers is: Are they worth the money?

During the past few months, prices for some 10/100Mbps Ethernet switches have fallen to less than $100 per port; hub prices are roughly half that for eight- to 24-port models. Late last month, for example, Hewlett-Packard reduced the list price on its AdvanceStack Switch 2000 and its corresponding 100Base-T module by 44 percent. Earlier, Allied Telesyn International Corp. slashed its hub prices by as much as 57 percent, with per-port prices falling to $48. More than a dozen companies, including market leaders such as Bay Networks Inc., Cabletron Systems Inc., Cisco Systems, and 3Com, have products represented in the low-end price category, with several companies launching entire product families in just weeks.

Although this is good news for finance managers, network managers are questioning whether these devices meet their backbone needs, and whether such low-cost devices provide the flexibility that is necessary for new networking designs.

Among the limitations of these devices are per-device port count, expansion capabilities, management, and support. Despite these limitations, IT managers are finding ways to use the devices throughout their networks, freeing up other hardware and financial resources while reshaping their networks.

According to recent research conducted by Infonetics Research Inc., whereas the median and lowest priced 100Mbps Ethernet switches have experienced sharp price drops, the high end of the market held their price near $2,250. At the low end, an example is the eight-port Cnet Technology Inc. CNSH-800, which supports Auto Negotiation and holds up to 8,192 MAC addresses but has few other features. The median-priced models, exemplified by the Accton Technology Corp. SmartExtender Fast SwitcHub-2se, has one 10Base-T port and one 10/100Mbps copper port and one 100Mbps fiber-optic port, plus it includes some self-diagnostics.

In some cases, the availability of high-performance, low-cost switching options has led managers to make unplanned network design changes.

For example, when Larry Slaton, MIS operations manager for Macsteel Service Centers USA Inc. in Torrance, Calif., had to replace a failed, full-featured backbone hub, he installed an inexpensive model. The plan, Slaton said, was to use it "as a Band-Aid" until he was able to get another full-featured, name-brand unit similar to the one that failed. Slaton said the unit has not failed and he now sees no reason to make the switch.

Slaton runs a three-hour, daily backup of all corporate, mission-critical data through that hub, he said. By the unit proving itself for this application, he said, more of these units have been added throughout his network.

However, he cautioned that these hubs are not plug-and-play and require extensive configuration time and effort by the IT staff. Because the hubs come with no vendor support--he buys his through mail order--Slaton recommends that only experienced network managers deploy such models.

For Dave Klinzman, director of network technology services at Longs Drug Stores Corp. in Walnut Creek, Calif., replacing shared-media hubs with switches meant he could upgrade intrastore networks without making wholesale changes to the corporate network.

With the lower cash outlay per switch the less expensive models afforded, Klinzman said he hoped to introduce additional services, such as networked point-of-sale kiosks, into the stores.

Although he acknowledges that some devices have limited capabilities such as fixed port densities, Klinzman said he would not buy a unit that didn't offer at least SNMP capabilities; the low-end units generally do not offer significantly more management than that.

Kinzman agreed with Slaton that compatibility is critical. "The only thing missing [when you buy these devices] is the assurance that this stuff will work when you plug it in," he said.

The surge in availability and usage of low-cost infrastructure equipment carries over in both chassis-based and standalone systems.

Jose Santiago, systems analyst in the engineering department of Komatsu Mining Systems Inc. in Peoria, Ill., bought a standalone switch that offered expansion slots so that he could have flexibility in expanding his network.

However, Steve Yantz, U.S. Army telecommunications specialist based at Fort Knox, Ky., opted for a name-brand, centralized chassis system that held "low-cost" blades. Adding 10/100Mbps Ethernet blades to the chassis allows him to buy what he needs when he needs it, he said. It also permits him to "remodel on the fly" and move the existing standalone systems out to the edge of his network. However, while the blades sell for $100 per port or less, the chassis itself adds considerably to the overall switch or hub price.

Yantz said that his ability to buy low-cost blades at Fort Knox, which is also Kentucky's fifth largest city, allows him to continue to build his network, adding that the "money is not flowing to keep up" with the network's overall requirements.

Costs beyond price
Despite the pleasure some managers are expressing because of the falling prices, not everyone is convinced that price alone is the solution to network problems. "The only use for this type of equipment would be for a network engineer to carry in his or her tool kit for access into a network sniffer," said Michal Grau, product services director at Linc Network Systems Inc., a systems integrator in Cincinnati.

Grau warned that some of the low-cost devices are of second-rate quality. "The quality differences can be attributed to the use of substandard power supplies, the signal-generating/timing chips, assembly, and construction. I don't believe that the warranty would even be a factor, as [these devices] are not looked to for long-term usage," he said.

Laurence Bates, information technology manager at Michigan State University in East Lansing, agreed that despite the price cuts, these devices are not appropriate for the wiring closet or backbone. However, "for small workgroups, I'll throw anything in," he said.

Bates is concerned that the switches--especially the 100Mbps models--"will not mesh well" with his existing infrastructure, particularly from a management perspective. "I don't give a hoot about SNMP; it's a hoax," he said. Bates requires that his network devices have some kind of internal management.

Phil Kwan, manager of network operations at Incyte Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., characterized the low-cost switches and hubs as "disposable." Rather than gamble his mission-critical data on what he considers "dead-end products" due to their lack of expandability, he said he would rather pay $200 to $280 per port and get devices with a longer potential life cycle and more flexibility.

"These are definitely throw-away items," Grau said.

While network managers debate the benefits of $100-per-port devices, one product seems to bridge the chasm between the inexpensive 10/100Mbps switch and a full-featured backbone switch, said Michael O'Connell, an analyst at Infonetics, a consultancy in San Jose.

Commodity-class products generally offer fixed port configurations and limited quality of service and management capabilities, he said. However, the Summit48 from Extreme Networks Inc. is a backbone- and wiring closet-class switch with 48 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports, two gigabit Ethernet uplinks, and extensive quality of service features, O'Connell said.

Although the Summit48 carries a list price of $100 per port for a pure Layer 2 switching configuration, it is the only device in this price range that can be upgraded to full Layer 3 routing switch capabilities, O'Connell noted.

Because most of the devices that fall into the $100-per-port category are of the 12- to 24-port variety and offer limited capabilities, Michigan State University's Bates said he would not put those devices into his backbone. However Bates has used the Summit48, noting that despite its price it offers features and port densities that he expects from more expensive devices, particularly the two gigabit Ethernet uplinks.

The suitability of these low-cost switches in workgroups and at the edge is clear, said Dave Passmore, research director at NetReference Inc., a consultancy in Sterling, Va. But for the backbone, Passmore said that latency-sensitive applications and quality of service could make the use of many of these low-cost units problematic.

"This is great news for users who can put fast Ethernet to every desk," he said. However, Passmore noted that the impact of a massive move to fast Ethernet ultimately could mean the need for switching routers and more backbone bandwidth.


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