Ethernet switch market diverges

Alan Weckel/Dell'Oro Group
09 Feb 2009

The beginning of 2008 brought the most significant LAN Ethernet switch announcements in recent history. These included Cisco's new Nexus platforms, F5's Viprion and Juniper's EX platform (Juniper's entrance into the Ethernet switch market) to name a few.

Many of these announcements focused on the datacenter and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Enterprises' embrace of virtualization together with the improved economics of fewer, larger datacenters has increased demand for Ethernet switches optimized for datacenter deployments. This has led to a confluence of new product introductions from existing vendors and new entrants into the market.

However, the specifications for these datacenter switches are diverging from those in the wiring closet (where Ethernet switches generally connect desktop PCs to the network). This bifurcation in market requirements is opening the door for new vendors to enter the market with products focused on the datacenter, and leading established vendors to develop products separately for the datacenter and wiring closet - an indication that vendors may no longer be able to develop a switch for one area and then adapt it for the other.

Datacenter requirements are evolving, and to match these new requirements switches are being offered with standard datacenter-specific features such as high-capacity, low-latency, pluggable interfaces and a converged fabric. Ethernet is being positioned as the converged fabric of choice within the datacenter. For example, Fiber Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) can allow for storage and data traffic to be converged onto Ethernet, while Infiniband over Ethernet (IBoE) seeks to allow high performance computing applications to be converged onto Ethernet.

To address some of the potential short comings that Ethernet may have as a datacenter converged fabric, numerous enhancements are being made to the technology. Fortunately for the industry, these vendors are not working in isolation. Rather, these Ethernet switch vendors and various standards bodies are working on a 'Converged Enhanced Ethernet' and/or 'Datacenter Ethernet' to make Ethernet a low-latency and loss-less fabric. These characteristics will enable Ethernet to better handle the rigorous datacenter requirements of storage and high performance computing.

As the pieces come into place for Ethernet to be the technology choice for converging datacenter traffic, a key to its success will be the ability to handle increased capacity. The industry is looking to 10 Gigabit Ethernet as the technology that will drive datacenter convergence. We have already seen new purpose-built Ethernet switches with only 10 Gigabit ports, such as Cisco's Nexus 5000 or Extreme's X650. Hence, we believe 10 Gigabit ports on Ethernet switches are poised for significant growth.

The recent developments around datacenter Ethernet and 10 Gigabit Ethernet has brought many new vendors into the Ethernet switch market that are focused on these segments only, as opposed to the broader Ethernet switch market. These vendors include Arista, Blade Network Technologies, Force 10, Woven and even Cisco's Nexus family is solely datacenter focused.

The wiring closet

In contrast with datacenter requirements of high-speed and capacity, wiring closet needs focus on combining low-speed applications that require very high levels of QoS and security onto the same networking infrastructure that connects PCs to the LAN. Currently, the two most prominent applications are voice and security.

VoIP requires switches that include such features as power-over-Ethernet (PoE) (the ability to power an IP phone through the network cable instead of an electrical outlet) and adaptive quality of service.

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