Cabletron software boosts backbone

What would you say to vendors that claim they can break bandwidth bottlenecks in backbone networks for free without having to junk any expensive switches?

Users have been saying "show me," so vendors have delivered switches with special software that combines several smaller pipes into a much bigger one.

That trend picked up speed last week when Cabletron Systems joined the fray and announced SmartTrunk, which lets its switches do just that. Options include combining 100M bit/sec. Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet pipes.

Other major switch vendors that support that functionality include Cisco Systems, 3Com and the Nortel Networks division of Nortel.

"Rather than buy a Gigabit Ethernet switch, you can combine multiple 100M bit trunks to create a bigger pipe that you can get by with," said Esmerelda Silva, an analyst at International Data Corp. "You get more bandwidth and better performance. And it lets you make do with what you already have."

Realising that many cost-conscious users are averse to backbone network upgrades, switch vendors have developed software that lets them combine existing pipes. That protects their often-heavy switch investments.

Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, uses Cisco's feature, Fast EtherChannel, to boost performance between desktop and backbone switches in two of its schools. Having 100M bits per second pipes wasn't enough, so the school used the feature to create 800M bits per second pipes to handle its heavy data traffic.

"This approach has done the job very well for us, and none of the links warrants a Gigabit [connection], as utilisation only ranges from 25 percent to 35 percent," said Charles Cameron, manager of systems and networks at Clarkson. "I doubt some areas will ever outgrow it." Some areas eventually will need Gigabit Ethernet, but Fast EtherChannel will be sufficient in those cases until Gigabit Ethernet switch prices come down, he added.

The Genome Sequencing Centre at Washington University in St. Louis was in a similar predicament and decided to use the feature among four switches to handle increasing traffic.

"We have about 150 people moving 40M-byte DNA sequencing files across the network, which can bottle things up," said Kelly Carpenter, systems manager at the centre. Going with bigger pipes has helped the situation, he said.

Without the ability to build the big virtual pipes between its backbone switches, the centre didn't have to upgrade to an expensive Asynchronous Transfer Mode-based backbone network, Carpenter said.

"We found we could stick with Ethernet technology and still get more bandwidth. It's super-cool that we didn't have to overhaul our backbone network," he said.

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