Competition and Copper Fuel SwitchMetric Gains

BOSTON (05/08/2000) - Exciting advances in copper-based switching and increased competition from new vendors are bringing down the cost of Gigabit Ethernet switching, according to the results of Round Three of the Network World/Tolly Group SwitchMetric.

Foundry Networks Inc. and Intel Corp. were the first vendors to pony up copper-based gear for the SwitchMetric test, and both had outstanding results due to the new technology. Foundry's copper-based FastIron II Plus GC topped our price/performance charts in the Layer 2, modular/chassis-based switch category and captured first place in Layer 3 IP and Layer 3 IPX ratings. Intel, a first-time participant, bounded onto the SwitchMetric scene, taking the top two spots in the Layer 2 fixed-port grouping with its NetStructure 470T switch and its NetStructure 480T routing switch. Both of these copper-based products smoked their closest fiber competitors.

These copper switches register a better price/performance ratio because the copper components are less expensive than fiber. While Gigabit Ethernet over copper switches have indeed set a new price/performance threshold in the SwitchMetric, buyer enthusiasm for them may be tempered because of limited availability. The first wave of copper-based switches is just now becoming available.

In the category of Layer 2 modular/chassis-based boxes that support the more widely deployed fiber transmission technology, newcomer NBase-Xyplex with its OptiSwitch 800F knocked Foundry's BigIron 4000 - the previous leader in this category - from the SwitchMetric pedestal. In fact, the OptiSwitch 800F's cost/gigabit rating is less than half that of the BigIron 4000.

Fiber-based switches from Network Peripherals and Extreme Networks also achieved significantly better SwitchMetric ratings than the BigIron 4000 in this round of testing.

In the Fast Ethernet switch arena, Nortel Networks headed the charge by five switch makers to unseat Hewlett-Packard as the price/performance leader in what has blossomed into a ferociously contested market segment.

What does it all mean for customers? Despite moves by 3Com and Lucent to throw in the towel and concede the enterprise switch market to market leader Cisco, the SwitchMetric results reveal aggressive pricing and a range of feature sets that vendors old and new are offering in the Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet markets. So the race is not anywhere near over.

"The perception is that Cisco has the better product and is the price/ performance leader," says Jerry McDowell, vice president of marketing at Network Peripherals. "It isn't right, but people will come around in time."

Cisco remains the only major vendor that steadfastly refuses to participate in the SwitchMetric, a 2-year-old benchmark that measures the price you pay for each gigabit per second of throughput (cost/gigabit) that a switch delivers.

For each type of switch, we gave vendors the option of participating in any or all of three basic tests - Layer 2, Layer 3 IP and Layer 3 IPX - depending on which markets they believe their products are best-suited to serve. Foundry, for instance, was the only switch maker to participate in all three tests at Layer 2 and Layer 3. All tests were conducted in a state-of-the-art test bed featuring Netcom Systems' SmartBits Advanced Multiport Performance Tester/Analyzer/ Simulators.

In Round Three of the SwitchMetric, we tested 12 switches from 10 vendors, most of which participated for the first time. Testing took place in March and April at The Tolly Group's lab in Manasquan, N.J. Some switch testing of devices with large-scale port configurations occurred at Netcom Systems' lab in Calabasas, Calif.

In addition to the new switches from Foundry, Intel and NBase-Xyplex, the other switches tested in this round were Asante Technologies' IntraCore 8000; Enterasys' SmartStack ELS100-S24TX; Extreme Networks' Alpine 3808; Network Peripherals' CornerStone 6G; Nortel Networks' BayStack 70-16T and BayStack 350-24T; and Performance Technologies' Nebula 4000.

As a sign of the times, all of the switches we tested were Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet. Past tests included token-ring, FDDI and ATM switches, as well.

Since the inception of the SwitchMetric program, all Gigabit Ethernet switches tested offered between eight and 80 ports, and were configured in a fully meshed network design. Nearly all the switches tested in previous rounds achieved wire-speed throughput at each frame size. But there were a few exceptions, such as 3Com's CoreBuilder 9400 and SuperStack II Switch 9300 - delivering 85 percent and 94 percent of theoretical maximum throughput, respectively - and more recently Intel's NetStructure 470T - delivering 95 percent of theoretical maximum throughput.

Gigabit Ethernet price/performance at Layer 2Intel's NetStructure 470T and 480T routing switches have set new heights for the cost/gigabit throughput for fixed-port Gigabit Ethernet switches. At $588 and $823, respectively, the Intel gear represents the first wave of switches that support the transmission of Gigabit Ethernet data over copper wiring instead of fiber-optic connections. Intel's NetStructure 470T processed up to 95 percent of the theoretical maximum throughput (using 1,518-byte frames).

While the NetStructure 470T cannot run all ports at theoretical maximum levels, it can transport 559,168 frame/sec at 1,518-byte frames - more than enough to handle most traffic loads.

Gigabit Ethernet over copper switches will bring lower price/performance numbers and overall total cost of ownership because existing wiring infrastructures can be used instead of pulling fiber at major cost. However, let's not forget that Gigabit Ethernet over copper has a distance limitation of 330 feet.

So if you are hooking up a server to a switch that sits just 12 feet away, you do not need to pay extra for fiber - copper is more cost-efficient. But if you are linking two switches that are 17 floors apart, you need to be looking at switches that support single-mode and multimode fiber.

Foundry's TurboIron/8, an eight-port switch, still leads all multimode fiber entries for Layer 2 fixed-port boxes with a cost/gigabit of $1,249.

In the Layer 2 modular/chassis-based Gigabit Ethernet switch category, Foundry's 64-port FastIron II Plus GC, the device that supports Gigabit Ethernet over copper, bested all rivals with a cost/gigabit of $938 - more than $100 cheaper than the nearest fiber switch and more than two and a half times cheaper than Foundry's BigIron 8000 switch with 64 fiber ports.

The pricing is further evidence that Gigabit Ethernet over copper products will be more economical than their fiber counterparts - provided there are no distance issues that would require fiber.

The ability of vendors to respond quickly to market demands for Gigabit Ethernet over copper depends largely on each switch's design, says Marshall Eisenberg, director of product marketing at Foundry. Changing from fiber to copper ports required only a front-panel swap and a physical-layer chip replacement for the FastIron II, he says.

"Some vendors aren't here yet with Gigabit Ethernet over copper because they have to redesign their entire switch," he says. As Foundry develops less costly chips and Application Specific Integration Circuits (ASIC), the cost savings "will sweep across our entire line due to the common components we employ," Eisenberg says.

In spite of the entrance of copper into the mix, we can't bypass the significant activity among productsin this category that support fiber connections. Last summer, Foundry's BigIron 4000 was the leader with a cost/gigabit of $2,280. Now NBase-Xyplex, Network Peripherals and Extreme have entered the market and are offering switches with cost/gigabit ratings that are about half that of the BigIron 4000. The NBase-Xyplex OptiSwitch 800F has a cost/gigabit rating of $1,058, and Network Peripherals' CornerStone 6G and Extreme's Alpine 3808 registered ratings of $1,129 and $1,393, respectively.

Network Peripherals' Jerry McDowell expects that Gigabit Ethernet switch prices will drop another 30 percent to 40 percent within a year.

Moving up to Layer 3

Foundry's FastIron II Plus GC posted the lowest cost/gigabit rating at $1,175, which is more than $200 less than its nearest fiber counterparts in the Layer 3 IP market. Among switches that support fiber connections, Extreme's Alpine 3808 pushed past Foundry's TurboIron/8 to lead the Layer 3 IP market segment with a cost/gigabit of $1,393 vs. the TurboIron/8's $1,874.

Extreme chalks up the Alpine 3808 performance on this front because the device is built using a second-generation chipset called Inferno. It delivers eight hardware queues per port plus bandwidth shaping - neither of which Foundry or Cisco offer yet, according to Mike Wong, Extreme technical marketing manager in Santa Clara.

Only Foundry tested a switch for IPX throughput in this latest round of testing. The FastIron II Plus GC reported a cost/ gigabit of $1,175 for IPX.

This compares with a cost/gigabit throughput rating of $1,874 for Foundry's fiber-based TurboIron/8. 3Com and HP boxes tested in this category in previous rounds but fell behind the TurboIron/8 in price/performance.

It is very surprising that of the 12 newly tested switches in this round of the SwitchMetric program, only Extreme and Foundry tested products for Layer 3 IP throughput. The rest tested simple, Layer 2 switching. That fact is surprising, considering the role that Gigabit Ethernet switches are positioned to play by most vendors. Most of these Gigabit Ethernet boxes will be positioned at junction points between large IP subnetworks and thus will be called upon to perform Layer 3 IP switching.

Design limitations may be one reason that other switch vendors appear thin on Layer 3 IP/IPX support, Wong says. Extreme uses custom ASICs throughout its switch line that embeds routing alongside switching, while other vendors' design approaches do not rely on such custom chips, he says.

"We offer Layer 3 ubiquitously on everything we offer," he says. "Now as streaming applications, voice and quality of service [QoS] get deployed across enterprise networks, there is a need to deploy routing more diversely across the network. Some vendors will have difficulty supporting that. We won't."

Network Peripherals' CornerStone 6G also employs a hardware-based ASIC approach to IP processing. "There aren't enough switches that support IP in hardware; most offer routing software upgrades," Network Peripherals' McDowell says.

"Since the software isn't free, the cost per gigabit goes up while the IP performance goes down, because software bolt-ons can't perform at the same level as ASIC-driven models."

We only have Layer 2 SwitchMetric ratings for Network Peripherals' CornerStone 6G because Layer 3 testing was not complete by publication time. The results will appear next month on the Network World and Tolly Group Web sites.

This year, advanced functionality such as QoS, bandwidth shaping and Layer 4 (and beyond) switching are all being adopted heavily by ISPs and other service providers intent on rolling out voice and other services with data offerings, according to vendors.

However, QoS, with very few exceptions, is not being readily adopted in enterprise accounts, according to Dan Lewis, a technical marketing engineer with Intel.

One reason may be the enormous complexity of integrating multiple switches that support QoS in an enterprise network. Intel offers QoS support on its NetStructure 470T and NetStructure 480T routing switch, plus added bandwidth shaping on the latter device.

"Once ISPs and other service providers roll out prioritized voice/ data services, the demand for such technologies will migrate into private enterprises as they realize the importance of the technology," Lewis says.

Fast Ethernet frenzy

While a trio of vendors were able to knock Foundry from its Gigabit Ethernet price/performance perch, five vendors attacked the Fast Ethernet market in hopes of earning top honors in this category. Nortel and D-Link served up unmanaged Fast Ethernet Layer 2-only devices that provide wire-speed performance and offer aggressive cost/gigabit - around $650, about 32 percent less than HP's managed ProCurve Switch 4000M, which held the top cost/gigabit spot among Fast Ethernet switches last year.

These devices are best for small to midsize firms that put a premium on processing performance and do not need management or QoS features. Enterprises that require managed Fast Ethernet switches with advanced features to support voice and video traffic streams should look at recently tested switches such as Nortel's BayStack 350-24T, Enterasys' SmartStack ELS100-S24TX, NBase-Xyplex's OptiSwitch 800F and Intel's NetStructure 460T. Those products offer competitive cost/gigabit ratings ranging from $927 for the BayStack 350-24T to $1,156 for Intel's 460T. You will also find HP's ProCurve Switch 4000M in that pack with a cost/gigabit of $956.

The key point is that buyers now have many more choices than just six months ago, when the ProCurve Switch 4000M sat alone at the sub-$1,000 level for cost/gigabit.

The majority of Fast Ethernet switches we tested offer network management support, including command-line interface, Web-based offerings and basic support for QoS from IEEE 802.1p/Q.

Be careful though. Just because vendors say they support 802.1p/Q doesn't mean their products meet your complete QoS needs. Most of these Fast Ethernet switches offer support for just two priority queues. So if you have defined up to eight different traffic classes by standards, your high-priority traffic may be split off by backbone switches into different traffic classes, yet lumped together at the department or wiring closet switch. This condition can jeopardize, to some degree, the delivery of real-time traffic such as voice.

QoS issues aside, increased product demand for 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet/Fast Ethernet switches is driving more vendors to this market, says Manish Desai, portfolio marketing manager at Nortel in Santa Clara.

"Everyone wants a piece of this market because it is the entry point to getting your products in the door," Desai says. Companies such as Intel, D-Link and Nortel are after market share because buyers are flocking to Fast Ethernet.

"These companies realize they can capture users with data performance and migrate them later to larger switches that support QoS and provide the infrastructure for voice over IP," Desai says.

If that's the case, we suggest buyers look at these low-end switches more carefully and perhaps negotiate upfront discounts for more complex switches used as a migration path later.

Fast Ethernet prices will continue to drop this year, vendors say. Nortel already cut the price of its BayStack 350-24T and BayStack 450 units last February. Pricing for the BayStack 350-24T, for instance, dropped from $2,450 to $2,195, largely in response to the market presence of Intel (24 ports for $1,598) and other aggressively priced offerings.

Vendors such as Enterasys say Fast Ethernet pricing will continue to drop as they achieve greater efficiencies in chip buying and, in some cases, outsourced manufacturing. Enterasys, for instance, has folded its manufacturing operation and handed off the job to Flextronics in San Jose, which reduced its overhead costs and helped it lower switch prices. "The pricing pressure in this end of the market is driving us all to make moves like this or to adopt new less-costly chipsets," says John Pappas, senior program manager with Enterasys.

"Lower prices only help so much; switch makers have to offer end-to-end QoS and other value adds to stay competitive."

Some vendors say users may actually pay more for Fast Ethernet switches this year, but they'll get more value. Buyers are demanding Fast Ethernet products with inherent scalability, gigabit uplinks and rich features that support packetized voice traffic, offer QoS or handle Internet Group Management Protocol multicast printing, according to Clint Bogard, director of sales for Asante's IntraCore product line. "You've got to do all those things to be on the shortlist," Bogard says. "That means prices may not come down much, but you're certainly getting more features and bandwidth for your dollar." The other tangible benefit, he says, is you begin to deploy a foundation that supports voice and video.

The introduction of copper into the switch mix is making a mark on price/performance. Intel has jumped into the fixed-port Gigabit Ethernet fray with aggressively priced models at the same time 3Com is making its exit.

Companies such as NBase-Xyplex, Network Peripherals and Extreme are giving Foundry a run in the modular/chassis-based Gigabit Ethernet switch sector.

Nortel, which finally jumped into the SwitchMetric test, has staked out a lead in the Fast Ethernet market with managed and unmanaged models - although there's no word when the company plans to pit its chassis-based Accelar against rivals.

There certainly has been a great deal of flux in the Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet price/performance segments of the switch market since the SwitchMetric was introduced early last year.

Bruno is managing editor of publishing products at The Tolly Group; he may be reached at Tolly is president and CEO of The Tolly Group; he may be reached at ktolly@ Greg Kilmartin, an engineer with The Tolly Group, supervised the SwitchMetric testing; he may be reached at

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