Test Center Rx

Brooks: We saw a plethora of interesting questions in 1999. We looked at everything from bit-wise issues in packet headers to political issues in the IT department. This week we'd like to take a look at some new products and technologies that may help address some of our most frequent technology-related questions. There's probably not much that can be done about the political ones.

One great new technology lives in new ASICs from Broadcom, a chip manufacturer that provides many of the guts for first-tier switch and router vendors' products. If you pop open a Synoptics/Bay Networks/Nortel or Cisco Systems switch, you're likely to see a bunch of quite large chips from Broadcom. They provide the low-level Ethernet switching, while the vendor provides the high-level management features.

Sometime this year we should see some new switches from the big players that integrate Broadcom's design. What's so special about these ASICs is that they are no longer simple layer-2 switches -- they've got intelligence up to layer 4. So a switch based on the new ASICs could also be a firewall, or a load balancer, or a number of other devices.

Devices based on the new chip should offer fantastic integration between layers 1, 2, and 3 -- although they will cost about the same as modern layer-2 switches. The implications for dedicated routers, load balancers, and firewalls are less than positive. A market for very high-performance, dedicated routers will probably always exist. But for 90 percent of the applications, an integrated switch/router/load balancer/firewall should do the trick at a fraction of the cost.

With the integrated management that this solution will provide, I expect to see fewer questions about setting up firewalls or proxies and more questions about proper policy management.

Pace: I'm all with Brooks on the Broadcom chips. After meeting with the vendor during the last NetWorld+Interop show, I began to understand some of the early dated press releases I was seeing from the likes of Cisco. Last summer, I read that Cisco was going to start shipping a switch blade sometime in 2000 for the popular 5500 Series of switches that would perform above layer-3 Quality of Service (QoS) functions. I was perplexed and made the assumption that Cisco would modify its Internetwork Operating System (IOS) to add more QoS features.

To my surprise, my guess was right (Cisco did add to IOS) but also wrong, and I knew it as soon as I saw the products Broadcom was demonstrating.

The separation of these important network infrastructure devices is slowly fading -- as Brooks mentioned, firewalls, routers, switches and so on, are all becoming one at the hardware level. The benefits go beyond the savings on a single piece of equipment. Corporations should see vast improvement in performance, reliability, and security.

Also, to hop on the policy-based management trend, having policies that govern the QoS, security, content filtering, and more will allow businesses to fine-tune their networks to suit themselves. Having the network management systems proactively working rather than reactively alerting humans will, I hope, lower the stress level of those who manage them.

Again, I agree with Brooks that 2000 will be the year of the policy. Most corporations were too busy with year 2000 or Internet strategies to have the time to sit down and clearly map out how things should be done. With those worries behind us, being able to design a cohesive technology and security strategy will become a much more important topic. Of course, this may be a new year's pipe dream I'm seeing. We'll probably luck out by having a new and cooler trend next year and then quickly ditch our efforts to become strategy-and policy-oriented.

(Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com.

Mark Pace is a member of the InfoWorldd Review Board; this is his last column as an author of the Test Center Rx. Send your questions to testcenter_rx@infoworld.com.)

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