Force10 aims high with 10G switch

Force10 Networks this week will debut a box that could help large corporations and carriers build beefier Gigabit and 10G Ethernet capacity than the most high-end switches currently available.

The E1200 and E600 switches from Force10 could be used to aggregate large amounts of Gigabit server connections in a large data center or to connect data centers with 10G Ethernet links in a metropolitan-area network, the company says. For an idea of the scale Force10 is targeting, consider this: The company does not offer 10M or 100M bit/sec Ethernet ports - only Gigabit and 10G.

Aiming squarely at high-end switches from Cisco Systems Inc., Extreme Networks Inc. and Foundry Networks Inc., Force10's 14-slot E1200 chassis can support a maximum of 336 Gigabit Ethernet ports, 28 10G Ethernet ports or a mix of the two speeds. The company says it also supports Layer 2 switching and fully Layer 3 routing at wire speed on all ports. The switch also supports Multi-protocol Label Switching and redundancy protocols such as Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol.

Force10 is officially launching as a company this week, though it has been working with customers for the past year or so. Along with its E1200 switch, the company also is debuting the E600, which offers half the port capacity but has the same switch fabric and uses the same modules as its big brother.

The architecture of the E1200 lets it scale far beyond competing switches, such as Extreme's BlackDiamond, Foundry's BigIron and Cisco's Catalyst 6500, according to the company and industry analysts. The E1200 has a 1.2T bit/sec backplane, or total switching capacity, which more than doubles the backplane of its closest competitors, Force10 says.

The switch is also the first product that can offer true 10G bit/sec throughput on each of its slots, the company says, with a per-module bandwidth of 40G bit/sec between the module and the switch backplane. This is key, industry analysts say, as Force10's competitors offer only 8G bit/sec of bandwidth per slot.

Some customers say this fact can shortchange users looking to get a full 10G connection, unless two 10G ports are trunked together.

"Force10 has set the bar in terms of 10 Gigabit performance," says Kevin Walsh, senior network engineer at the San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC). Walsh uses two E1200s to connect a cluster of 512 Gigabit Ethernet servers as part of the Teragrid project, an effort by the SDCS, along with the National Center for Supercomputing to build the world's largest distributed supercomputer. The cluster of two E1200s in San Diego connect to Juniper routers via 10G Ethernet. The Juniper routers then connect the SDSC site to four other sites on the Teragrid.

"There is no other manufacturer at the moment who has combined this kind of performance and capacity," says Walsh, adding that he has tested 10G Ethernet switches from other vendors.

In terms of total capacity and density, high-end boxes from Cisco and Extreme max out at around 256G bit/sec of backplane, and have a maximum of 192 Gigabit Ethernet ports. Foundry's BigIron has a 480G bit/sec backplane and supports 120 Gigabit Ethernet ports. All three vendors also offer 10G Ethernet modules.

Where Force10 falls a bit short is in areas such as 1000Base-T ports - copper Gigabit modules are due out next year - and with higher-layer switching, such as Layer 4 load balancing or Layer 7 Web switching. (Extreme, Foundry and Cisco offer these features through hardware and software upgrades.)Force10 switches will cost about US$2,200 per Gigabit Ethernet port, and about $55,000 per 10G Ethernet port. The company says a base configuration for its E600 is about $50,000, compared with a similarly configured Cisco Catalyst 6509, which costs about $75,000.

Force10's E1200, E600 and modules are available now.

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