Wanted: Intelligent Switches for Network

Six months into a year where there is still a strong focus on the convergence of data, voice and video, networking vendors currently utter an unwavering observation -- the growing demand for policy-based network infrastructures.

In order to drive the convergence message, there is a need to have the ability to prioritize packets running across the network, according to Terry Wong, South Asia marketing manager, 3Com Corp.

If there are delays in an e-mail packet, a lag in the arrival of video and voice packets makes a lot of difference to the end-users receiving the data, Wong explained.

"If one or two frames drop out, it becomes very noticeable," he said. "So, we need to set priorities to ensure that the packet gets sent out smoothly."

"You need the devices within the network to have the capabilities to identify the packet and recognize the priority setting," he added. "This whole concept of traffic prioritization has given much importance to the quality of service (QoS) and class of service (CoS) in the convergence arena."

Customers have been asking for QoS standards such as 802.1 to have the ability to scale and support multimedia applications, Wong said.

"The idea of a converged network is definitely in the mind of the customer, where their purchases must support a converged network," he added. "That is the buying criteria (of networking products) today."

While there will always be debate over whether an organization should deploy Asynchronous Tranfer Mode (ATM) or Gigabit Ethernet, the industry is starting to move away from this age old argument, according to K C Soh, Asia-Pacific senior manager for enterprise marketing, Cisco Systems.

The focus is now on application-aware and policy-based networking, where both the industry and technology are evolving to a stage where businesses are driving for convergence, Soh said.

He added that networks previously only needed to provide the bandwidth to carry information, but are now required to hold greater level of intelligence where customers are demanding for application-aware and multi-service infrastructures.

The focus now is on the intelligence of the network, and developing applications for end-users, such as multi-media, multi-service converged applications, Web-based call centers for enhanced customer service, Soh added.

There is call for hardware to have the intelligence to be aware of its environment, and ensure that applications run smoothly across the network, he said.

Even small companies need some form of policy-based networking because they may be suppliers for bigger organizations, and are part of these customers' larger network infrastructures, he explained.

Cisco believes that ultimately, the network will be governed by business policies, where network traffic can be prioritized, for instance, according to specific user access, he said.

"We're talking about a security-based policy network," he explained. "So even with excessive bandwidth, there's still need for QoS to ensure that there is security within the network."

Driven by the need to be e-commerce-enabled, customers are asking for more security features in their network, according to Pua Yeow Khoon, manager systems and services, IBM Singapore.

They will also need an architecture that can simulate a specific route across the network to ensure that data packets flow smoothly, or conduct tests when new policies are established, Pua said.

Organizations in Asia-Pacific have begun to see the importance of application-aware, policy-based networking because their concern is in addressing their business needs, Soh said.

"So it's no longer a question of speed or technology, or about pitting ATM against Gigabit Ethernet," he said. "Every 12 to 18 months, better performance and new technology enhancement emerges, so we can safely say advanced technology will gradually appear over time."

Computerworld queried the progress of these two technologies in the region during the past six months, and found out that while ATM proved more popular in Asia-Pacific, businesses do not plan to overlook Gigabit Ethernet.

ATM is not very strong among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) here because of its complexity and high cost, according to Kevin Dillon, product marketing manager, Nortel Networks.

Ethernet is a hot favorite because it is more cost-effective, and these companies typically build Gigabit Ethernet uplinks between switches, Dillon said.

"There's a lot of interest in consolidation, where the market is looking at running telephony over the network infrastructure," he added. "This has heighten the need for QoS functionality and traffic prioritization which now plays a strong role in the SME market space because they can get away with running voice and data under a single infrastructure."

ATM has been stronger among larger enterprises in Asia-Pacific because of its high-speed interconnection, QoS features, its resilience and reliability, said Dillon"Large organizations in Asia-Pacific have and are deploying ATM, but are now also looking hard at Gigabit Ethernet," he noted. "The popularity in ATM could have come about because there are fewer legacy issues in this region, compared to those in the United States and Europe."

And companies in this region see ATM as an "elegant solution", whereas in the United States, technology moves much faster so "they don't have the luxury of long implementation" and have therefore, favored Gigabit Ethernet and Ethernet, he said.

But he added that ATM's high cost and complexity are still issues that companies in this region look at.

Gigabit Ethernet is also notably catching up in speed and increasing in reliability, he said, adding that with the help of standards such as Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) and Differentiated Services (DiffServ), the technology can now provide "enough QoS" without the complexity often associated with ATM.

"Also, when ATM was being driven by the market, there was much suspicion that Internet Protocol (IP) could not deliver a lot of things which have now been proven wrong," he said, noting that ATM will remain strong in the carrier space rather than the enterprise.

But Dillon also reiterated the industry's shift away from debating over transport technology, to one where the focus is moving towards building a network that is "application-aware, easily managed and deploy services for convergence".

Michael Ang, Asia-Pacific vice president of Xylan, also noted that the days of routers are gone, and the age of switching is here where routing technology is in switches with Layer 2 and Layer 3 capabilities.

In the last six months, Ang has seen customers moving away from hubs and old switches, and asking for boxes with routing capabilities and firewalls.

And because of their speed and simplicity, network switches are replacing hubs and routers as the dominant form of internetworking in local area networks (LANs) today.

Layer 3 switching is hardware-based routing. In particular, the packet forwarding is handled by specialized hardware, usually application specific integrated circuits (ASICs), Soh said.

Depending on the protocols, interfaces, and features supported, Layer 3 switches may be deployed in place of the feature-rich routers to perform pure layer 3 forwarding in a campus environment, he added.

Switches also can offer more bandwidth, said Tim Hale, senior product marketing manager at 3Com. "Each port on a switch is a dedicated 10 or 100 (M bits per second) Ethernet connection. That's a lot of bandwidth. With hubs and routers, users don't have a dedicated connection."

"And why would anyone want to pay higher cost for routers when switches can perform the same capabilities at one-tenth the price?" Ang asked.

But similar to the mainframe and PC situation, some vendors will still continue to offer routers because of the higher price margin, he said, adding that businesses will also still need "small routers" for to enable remote access.

"And eventually, capabilities such as routing, switching, virtual private network (VPN) support, and voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) will all be built into a single box," he predicted.

"It's an issue of cost and manageability, businesses are looking at the possibility of having only one box to buy and manage," he explained. "And as you add more functions and abilities, managing the network from a single point of access becomes increasing important."

"Silicon power has advanced so that we'll be able to collapse all functions into one, or at most, two boxes."

Cisco's Soh agreed.

"Today's Layer 2 and Layer 3 switches are typically high performance LAN switches," he noted.

"An organization needs to also managed their WAN connectivity, virtual private networks and other network services," he added. "So we will likely see multi-layer, multi-service internetworking and intelligence network services provided in a single networking device in the near future."

But the role of a router can generally be described as a Layer 3 switch that is capable of performing value-added network services such as security, encryption, telephony services, ATM services, access control, queuing, he explained.

So whether these all-in-one boxes are to be called switches or routers is not an issue, he added, noting that it is "a mere nomenclature".

And the market could see a device like that in as early as the end of this year, said Ang.

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