Cisco to pack Web switching into Catalyst

Cisco Systems Inc. is readying a module for its Catalyst 6500 backbone switch that the company says can direct Web traffic and balance server loads faster than stand-alone Web switches.

The Content Switching Module (CSM), which Cisco plans to ship in a month, will cost two to 10 times as much as one of the company's stand-alone Web switches. But it also will deliver content switching across three times as many Gigabit ports as Cisco's top content switch, and is simpler to manage.

The module for Cisco's data center switch, which is aimed at enterprise networks and Web content or application hosting provider nets, will become the latest weapon in Cisco's arsenal of Web acceleration products. Cisco spent close to US$7 billion last year assembling a line of products aimed at speeding the delivery of Web content across IP nets.

The CSM will examine packets at the transport and application layers - Layer 4 and Layer 7 - to determine the destination port and URL information. Extracting port destination information will allow the switch to forward packets to the most available server, while application switching will allow packets to be shuttled to the proper server based on the Web site being requested.

The module could be used to provide Web switching and load-balancing services across all or some of a Catalyst 6500's ports. The 6500 could be configured with as many as 384 Fast Ethernet ports, 130 Gigabit Ethernet ports or a mix.

The new blade will provide in hardware the same Layer 4 switching capabilities supported in the IOS Server Load Balancing software already available for the Catalyst 6000 family. But the CSM is "an order of magnitude" faster in that it has a 4G bit/sec access path to the switch's backplane, according to Seth Redmore, a Cisco marketing manager. The module is much faster than stand-alone Web switches and load balancers, Cisco says, because those devices need to access the Catalyst via a 1G bit/sec or slower link.

"Having access to the backplane is important, because that means [Web traffic] can get to other cards in the chassis with very high bandwidth," Redmore says.

The module also outperforms the IOS load-balancing software in that it performs Layer 7 switching and the software doesn't.

Redmore adds that CSM will allow users to free up Catalyst 6500 Gigabit Ethernet ports - which can cost more than $1,000 apiece - that would have been occupied by external Web switch connections.

With every Catalyst port turned on for Web switching, the CSM could support a maximum of 16,384 servers.

Cisco entered the Layer 4-Layer 7 switch market almost a year ago, when it acquired ArrowPoint for $5.7 billion. Cisco has since issued its own line of Layer 4-Layer 7 boxes - the Content Service Switch (CSS) 11000 series - based on the ArrowPoint technology.

"It would be delusional for me to say that [the CSM] does not cut into the CSS" in terms of product functionality, Redmore says. However, he adds that "the [CSM] does not take the place of the CSS 11000 series of content switches."

Businesses that need to sort out Web traffic based on application and URL information would be more inclined to buy an external Web switch, like the CSS 11800, Redmore says. Cisco's CSS boxes provide features the CSM cannot, such as the ability to handle surges in requests for Web pages. The CSS 11000s also work better with Web caching devices.

One analyst thinks the introduction of the CSM might send users mixed messages about the best way to do content switching and load balancing.

"They're positioning it to coexist with the CSS line," says Joel Conover, an analyst with Current Analysis. "But it's quite a bit faster than the CSS - which is amusing because the CSS was supposed to be their lead product in the content switching space."

Price could be another consideration: The CSM will cost US$70,000, compared with pricing between $7,000 and $30,000 for the CSS products.

Cisco's Catalyst 6000 family competes with Layer 3 switches from Extreme Networks Inc., Foundry Networks Inc., Enterasys Networks and Nortel Networks Corp. Foundry and Nortel offer Web switches, while Extreme recently purchased WebStacks, a maker of Web switch technology.

Of Cisco's competitors, Nortel's Alteon 780 Content Switch comes closest to a CSM-enabled Catalyst 6500 in terms of combining Layer 4-Layer 7 switching and port density (336 Fast Ethernet Ports and 60 Gigabit Ports). The Alteon 780 surpasses Cisco with support for 2.4 million concurrent TCP connections, compared with the CSM's limit of one million.

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