What's the biggest, fastest LAN switch?

Start-ups have a new take on how to build the 'biggest' ethernet switch

Another company already with products available is Raptor Networks, which makes fixed-configuration Gigabit and 10G Ethernet switches that connect to each other to form a meshed fabric. Rather than focus on high-density data centers, Raptor's gear is aimed at LAN backbone and aggregation of wiring closet traffic. "We've created the ability to do at L2 what everyone else must go to Layer 3 to do," says CEO Tom Wittenschlager.

The three-year-old company makes low-cost, fixed-configuration 10G Ethernet switches with 24 Gigabit and six 10G Ethernet ports and 160Gbps of total switching bandwidth. The single-rack-unit boxes support Layer 2-4 switching and run a proprietary modification of 10G Ethernet, which allow the devices to be hooked together in a multi-path mesh at Layer 2 without using the spanning tree protocol. Instead, the switches connect with the Raptor Adaptive Switch Technology (RAST), a protocol that binds the switches in a way similar to how modules in a chassis switch are hooked to the backplane or switch fabric. Citing internal company test data, Wittenschlager says the technology can move packets through a mesh of four Raptor switches -- passing a packet in and out of a 10G Ethernet port eight times among four boxes -- with 6.48 microseconds of latency.

"This creates the effect of each Raptor switch acting like a blade in a module, which allows traffic to travel among the switches very fast with low latency," he says. "To achieve this, routing information is inserted into unused header space in a standard Ethernet frame, which gives delivers switch heartbeat and route path data among Raptor switches in a cluster, according to Wittenschlager.

"We've created the ability for physically separate blades [the raptor switches] to communicate on a common back plane, as if they were all inside one chassis. It's really one virtual switch, with blades that can be sitting up to 80 kilometers apart" when connected via 10G Ethernet over single-mode long-haul fiber.

Non-raptor switches connected to 10G or Gigabit ports see the switch as a single large LAN switch and can connect as simple Ethernet without added configuration, he says.

A mesh of four Raptor boxes recently replaced a core of two Catalyst 6509 switches in the network of L.A. Care, the healthcare management firm for the Los Angeles County employees.

The Raptor boxes were deployed to segment the company's flat Layer 2 LAN into VLAN subnets, keeping it at Layer 2, with 10G Ethernet in the core. Three 10G Ethernet pipes connect each box in the mesh; the Catalyst switches have been moved to the LAN edge for connecting the organization's 350 end users, and other devices. Servers are plugged into the Raptor core on non-RAST Gigabit Ethernet ports.

After solving some initial spanning tree loop issues between the IOS-based Cisco routers and the RAST-based Raptor switches, the network is running "smooth and very fast" says Rayne Johnson, director of IT and security at L.A. Care. The Raptor product cost around US$180,000 to install, while Cisco quoted Johnson at around US$500,000 to upgrade the core with 10G Ethernet and VLAN capabilities. "I usually don't get myself involved with a product" in its initial development, Johnson says. "But it was worth it. In the end, you can't beat the price."

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