Will Cisco's switch spark a product shakeout?

A new WAN module for Cisco's Catalyst LAN switching lines has cast a cloud over the future of some of the vendor's earlier products.

And the move also signals an industry trend away from routers, according to one analyst.

Cisco has introduced the new FlexWAN module for the Catalyst 6500 LAN switch, which allows users to deploy the Catalyst 6500 as a routing switch.

It supports standard routing protocols for metropolitan-area networks (MAN) and WANs, as well as LANs. So users need not employ a slower, costlier router, such as Cisco's 7500 model, for MAN/WAN routing.

Generally, routing switches are 10 times faster than traditional routers, at one-tenth the cost.

Indeed, sources say Cisco is positioning the Catalyst 6500 with FlexWAN as a single platform for consolidating LAN, MAN and WAN services to lower cost of ownership, simplify network design, ease network management, and migrate existing MAN and WAN networks, such as those based on routers.

Geoff Johnson, program director at Gartner Group, suggested network architects should redesign their networks to cater for an increasingly switched environment.

"Network architects should be reviewing their network traffic every couple of months," he told Computerworld.

"It is an inescapable fact of life [users will be] driven by changes to business requirements and moved [by vendors] towards next generation technology."

Cisco officials said adding WAN capabilities to its routing switches does not make the router obsolete, and the 7500 router is not slotted for retirement.

The company claims in addition to the installed base of Cisco 7500 users that need to be supported, the router can also function as a virtual private network gateway, and supports IBM SNA connectivity through a channel interface processor module.

Voice enhancements are on the way as well, according to the company.

But the headaches for network managers don't end there.

Product overlap within Cisco's switching lines is also causing concern among industry observers.

They cite Cisco's Catalyst 6500 as an example. It is designed for users consolidating their LAN and WAN backbones with Gigabit Ethernet switches, and who need to extend Layer 4-7 switching, server load balancing and application hosting capabilities across MANs and WANs.

But the 6500 competes with Cisco's existing Gigabit core routing switch with WAN capabilities, the Catalyst 8500.

Cisco now says the Catalyst 6500 is its strategic Gigabit Ethernet core routing switch, and the 8500 is targeted solely at core ATM networks.

This positioning effectively eliminates 50 per cent of the market for the 8500. Given that campus ATM is a declining market, the 8500 - less than two years after its debut - is already a legacy product.

Cisco says there's still plenty of demand for the 8500, but David Passmore, research director at US-based research firm The Burton Group, said: "They're being politically correct.

"They don't want to send signals to their customers who have the investment in these previous products that they're going to ‘end-of-life' these things."

A Cisco spokesperson said because the 8500 is a pure ATM switch - Ethernet frames are segmented into ATM cells for transport across the switch backplane - it only makes sense to market it as such.

But observers say a product shakeout is in the offing, whether Cisco or its customers initiate it.

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