Cisco switches to Layer 3

Cisco Systems, AT the ComNet Conference and Expo in Washington Tuesday, unveiled a new switching engine designed to give enterprises greater control over their converged networks.

Dubbed Catalyst 4000 Supervisor Engine III, the new product is a self-contained hardware module that can be plugged into the company's existing line of Layer 2 Gigabit Ethernet switches. By doing so, customers can upgrade any of their high-density 10/100 Catalyst 4000 switches to handle Layer 3 routing functions.

"This announcement is a big deal for the Cisco installed base that wants to [upgrade] or is considering upgrading their capabilities," said David Passmore, research director of The Burton Group Corp., a Midvale, Utah-based analyst company. "Layer 3 services like QoS [quality of service] are starting to become more important for enterprises, especially those considering putting in Ethernet-based phones on the LAN."

By virtue of upgrading the Catlayst 4000 switches, first introduced in January 1999, the new switching engine allows large enterprises and Metro Ethernet providers to offer services such as QoS, security, and multi-layer switching. Ultimately, the enhancement allows an enterprise to offer converged voice, data, and video services such as VoIP (voice over IP) from the desktop.

Cisco's idea is that by placing a control module in the wiring closet, network administrators can have more and finer control of their traffic from the edge, rather than from the core. Supervisor III allows customers to differentiate LAN traffic types and prioritize based on their own requirements.

"Resource-hungry applications can now be controlled, which is very important in a converged environment," said Les Poltrack, director of marketing for the gigabit switching business unit at Cisco. "This is done by performing both inbound and outbound policing of traffic."

A customer using the product is the Grant County Public Utilities District, in Ephrata, Wash. Acting as a local service provider to the county's residents, the utility laid fiber to the homes of its citizens and is offering them Ethernet over fiber. Catalyst 4000 is placed at the access layer and is used to control bandwidth to its users.

Using a proprietary IP switching technology, dubbed CEF (Cisco Express Forwarding), Supervisor III can switch 48 million packets per second -- two and a half times more than what Catalyst 4000 can do without the engine. The line of switches also provides as much as 240 ports per system, including support for copper. The company claims they have shipped more than 20 million ports of the Catalyst line to date.

Meanwhile, last month Foundry Networks introduced an ASIC chipset for its FastIron family of enterprise switches that compete with the Cisco Catalyst 4000 line. The chipset, JetCore, allows Foundry to double the port count on their module systems and control the bandwidth on a per-user level. This prevents unauthorized network hogging. The FastIron family supports jumbo frames and Layer 3 switching.

The FastIron line has been able to handle Layer 3 switching since the line's introduction, said Chandra Kopparapu, director of product marketing at Foundry Networks in San Jose, California.

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