Budget-beating bandwidth

Sometimes, a switch is just a switch. Sometimes, it's worth another look. Dell has long been looking to expand its reach beyond servers in the datacenter, hoping to capitalize on the small to midsize business that needs high-capacity switching power but isn't ready to spring for a Cisco-powered network. The Dell PowerConnect 5324 is the most recent example of this initiative.

Clearly aimed at an infrastructure looking to increase the bandwidth available to servers without breaking the budget, the PowerConnect 5324's US$1,199 price tag hits the mark. It delivers in the network, too, performing well enough for small server aggregation tasks or high-throughput workgroup implementations.

Like other Dell switching products, the 5324 is a 24-port switch with four shared ports. These four ports can be used as either copper or fiber but not both. The fiber ports are SFP (small form-factor pluggable) gigabit ports, and all copper ports on the 5324 are 10/100/1000 auto-negotiating Ethernet ports. The use of SFP ports is a benefit to smaller infrastructures; SFP modules not only cost far less than standard gigabit interface converters, but they support both single- and multi-mode fiber.

Solid Spec Sheet

The broad strokes of Ethernet switching are evident in the 5324. Via the decidedly Cisco-like CLI or the Web interface, most of the features you would expect from a managed switch are present. These include 802.1q VLANs, LACP (Link Aggregation Control Protocol) link aggregation, TACACS+ (Terminal Access Controller Access Control System) and RADIUS authentication, IGMP (Internet Group Management Protocol), GARP (Generic Attribute Registration Protocol), port and VLAN mirroring, STP (Spanning Tree Protocol) and RSTP (Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol) support, jumbo frame, auto-negotiation for speed and duplex, auto-MDIX (medium dependent interface crossover), and even rudimentary QoS support. The 5324 also supports redundant power via Dell's RPS-600 power supply.

Another important feature found in the 5324 is port-based authentication via 802.1x and EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) to a RADIUS server, permitting implementation of network-layer access control. Also worth noting is a novel feature that allows admins to perform basic cable integrity testing.

Drive Time

Dell claims that the 5324 has a top-end switch fabric capacity of 48Gbps and a forwarding rate of 35.6 million packets per second; the forwarding table can handle as many as 8,000 MAC addresses. These specs balanced against the low price make the 5324 attractive for nearly any high-bandwidth application.

In practice, the PowerConnect 5324 drives identically to its elder brethren, with only minor changes to the interfaces since I last looked at the PowerConnect line. This switch does seem to have more horsepower than the 3000 series, and the hardware has been updated, showing Dell's efforts to improve the base. For a switch built like the 5324, more power is definitely desirable.

I threw a few billion packets at the 5324 in the lab, using dual NICs on three dual-processor servers running TCP streaming tests back and forth for several hours, accompanied by pingfloods from other servers to monitor accurate packet traversal under load. The 5324 handled these tests with no packet loss.

Simple SNMP testing indicates the 5324 is standards-compliant, and the open source bandwidth-monitoring package MRTG (Multi Router Traffic Grapher) had no problems contacting and monitoring the switch. Dell's OpenManage manages this switch as well, including server and network management under the control of a single console.

Growing Up

What the PowerConnect 5324 lacks is maturity. For instance, although firmware upgrades are supported in the usual way, via a TFTP (Trivial FTP) download of new code to the switch followed by a reboot to the new image, the implementation lacks polish. On the plus side, the 5324 helpfully provides two image locations, so a known-good image can be retained while the new image is booted.

But there is no coherent way to determine which image is which because the image locations do not carry version information. This can make firmware upgrades worrisome and inconsistent. Firmware editions for a few of Dell's different switch models carry the same version and file name but have different byte counts and MD5 hashes. One of these images appeared to be invalid and would not boot on the switch.

Also, modifying the IP address of the switch to another address within the same subnet isn't possible via Telnet or the Web. Try it and the switch will complain about address overlap and will require that the current IP be removed first -- disconnecting the Telnet or Web session.

Finally, the PowerConnect line lacks a few enterprise-grade features such as discovery protocol support, a la Cisco Systems's CDP (Cisco Discovery Protocol), power over Ethernet, and a fully fleshed support infrastructure within Dell. According to Dell, the PowerConnect switches will support the 802.1ab discovery protocol when it is finally ratified by the IEEE.

Power-over-Ethernet support may take longer to arrive in this class of switch, but Dell is expecting to introduce it in the PowerConnect 3300 series edge switches in the near future.

The PowerConnect 5324 is not a replacement for high-end gigabit server switching hardware but a way for small to midsize infrastructures to enjoy the power of gigabit switching for a low cost of entry. In that goal, it succeeds.

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