Cisco Enterprise Ethernet Switch Buyer’s Guide

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Cisco has such a large customer base to talk to that it would be foolish not to pay attention when it chooses to talk about its original field of innovation: networking. Joel Conover, Senior Manager for Borderless Networks at Cisco, sees two key trends emerging: the rise of video and the consumerization of IT.

“Video is fast becoming the dominant traffic type on the network because people understand the power of video in communicating with customers, partners, and employees using technologies like telepresence (high definition, multi-screen video conferencing with directional audio), Webex conferencing and video-on-demand,” he said. “Advances in network architecture are allowing these rich media interactions.”

On the consumerization of IT side, he believes that employees and CXO’s are demanding the ability to use the devices of their choice — smartphones and tablet computers — rather than company-issued devices. These knowledge workers need to be able to connect to the network in whatever way they choose while doing so securely, reliably, and seamlessly.

Thus Cisco is responding to these trends in its enterprise switch portfolio. The company splits the enterprise switch market into three main categories, not counting offerings for small businesses, the data center and service providers.

Campus LAN Core

For the LAN core, Conover recommends the Catalyst 6500 family of modular LAN switches. These offer enough performance and flexibility for the campus core and distribution networks while supporting integrated network services and resiliency features. In the 12 years since the introduction of the Catalyst 6500 platforms, Cisco has shipped over 700,000 chassis, and continues to upgrade this product line.

Conover noted that key markets for this switch are large enterprises, particularly those in the financial, education, and healthcare fields. He calls attention to the Catalyst 6500 E-Series switch with its starting price of $55,000. He characterized it as the industry’s most widely deployed core modular platform, with ample density for gigabit and ten gigabit aggregation in the campus core. It is fully loaded with hardware-accelerated Borderless Network Services like Cisco Medianet, Cisco EnergyWise, and Cisco TrustSec, and powered by Cisco IOS Software.

“The Catalyst 6500 delivers best-in-class resiliency with VSS featuring sub-200-millisecond supervisor failover utilizing the Enhanced Fast Switchover Upgrade (EFSU) functionality and enriched application visibility with Cisco IOSNetFlow,” said Conover. “The Catalyst 6500 can provide investment protection with backward and forward compatibility.”

Campus LAN Access Switches

The Catalyst 2K, 3K, and 4K families (( are better suited as access switches that allow the network to adapt and support new application deployments. They are designed for ease of operations and include enterprise-class security.

For LAN access, Conover touts the Cisco Catalyst 3750, starting at $3,900 per switch. It is good for rich media applications such as video due to features that ensure network readiness with integrated traffic simulation and QoS assessment capabilities. It can also identify and bring video streams onto the network based on priority and available bandwidth. Further, network managers can monitor and troubleshoot the network by tracing the route that video follows, identifying any nodes that may be responsible for jitter or delay in the path. Users can start with 1GE and upgrade to 10GE later.

“The Catalyst 3750-X switches secure communications and can help ensure compliance (to regulations such as HIPPA or SOX) by preventing man-in-the-middle attacks (so communications cannot be intercepted), preventing denial-of-service, and applying role-based, location-aware access control,” said Conover. “It is available in three different price-performance points while allowing one to upgrade in the future.”

Compact Switches

In the compact switch category, Conover suggests the Cisco Catalyst 2960-C and 3560-C. These compact switches extend services whenever and wherever you want with simplified LAN support, far from the wiring closet.

Starting at $795, Cisco C-Series Switches are good for unified communications, wireless access, IP video and other applications in wiring-, space-, and power-constrained environments. With Power over Ethernet (PoE) pass-through capability, the C-Series Switches eliminate the need for power outlets and so greatly reduce cabling complexities and overall infrastructure requirements.

“Cisco Catalyst Compact Switches help enable deployments of new applications easily, securely, and reliably,” said Conover. “They are fanless and stylish, making them ideal for collocation with end users. And their small form factor makes them easy to deploy in spaces with limited wiring and cabling infrastructure.”
Tips in Switch Selection and Deployment

Digging deeper into switch selection, Conover offered further advice. If you’re looking for a standards-based switch with an enterprise baseline feature set at a competitive price, choose the Catalyst 2960-S. If, however, you are more interested in a switch to really address the new trends in enterprise around video, IT consumerization/mobility, security, or where availability is important (such as uninterrupted voice/video/data communications with customers, partners, and employees) then opt for either the Catalyst 3750-X or 4500E.

“Go for the Catalyst 3750-X if you have a fixed switching preference and the Catalyst 4500E for if you prefer modularity,” said Conover.

The Catalyst 2960-S can be used in standalone or stackable configuration (up to 4 switches with optional stacking module). Note, though, that they are best suited to branch office or modest sized wiring closets of up to 192 access ports. Similarly, the Catalyst 3750-X switches are stackable (up to nine switches) and are good for branch offices or enterprise wiring closets. In addition, The Catalyst 3560-X is a 24- or 48-port standalone version of the 3750-X and geared to small branch offices.

When deploying Catalyst 2960-S, 3560-X, or 3750-X switches, Conover advises users to take advantage of Cisco Smart Install capabilities. This technology configures the Cisco IOS Software image and switch configuration without user intervention. It utilizes dynamic IP address allocation and a preconfigured director switch to facilitate installation. All switches mentioned feature Auto Smart Ports to provide automatic configuration as devices connect to the switch port, allowing auto detection of the device onto the network.

“Smart Port macros take advantage of Cisco’s best practices for implementing QoS and network security,” said Conover.

Another best practice for implementation is to enable EnergyWise for enterprise-wide energy management. This is a way to communicate messages that measure and control energy between network devices and endpoints. The network discovers Cisco EnergyWise manageable devices, monitors their power consumption and takes action based on business rules to reduce power consumption.

When it comes to the core of the network, though, reliability and performance are king. Hundreds or thousands of workstations can flow into and through the network core. Therefore, it is critical that it deliver no-compromise performance and reliability. Catalyst 6500 switches are put together with that in mind.

In the distribution and core, Cisco recommends following a validated design approach, which ensures you get the most from the high availability and reliability features. The company’s website has more information about Cisco best practices for the campus.

“Most mid- to large companies upgrade every 3 to 5 years,” said Conover. “When they do, they typically consider today’s needs versus anticipated needs, scalability, features and budget guidelines.”

Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications, including eSecurity Planet and CIO Insight. He is also the editor-in-chief of an international engineering magazine.

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