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Marcia Savage
Marcia Savage
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Ethernet Switch Market: Who's Winning?

An Infonetics survey on companies' spending plans and vendor perceptions shows Cisco and HP leading the pack, with Huawei making some inroads into the US Ethernet switch market.

A recent survey of Ethernet switch buyers by Infonetics Research had some interesting findings. Though Cisco is holding on to its dominant market position, HP is making strides, and Huawei is beginning to make some headway among Ethernet switch buyers in the US, the study showed.

HP earned a second-place showing among the 157 North American organizations that Infonetics surveyed. The study asked buyers about their campus and datacenter Ethernet switch deployment plans, purchases, and views of vendors.

HP is driving demand by updating its portfolio and taking a thought leadership position on software-defined networking, Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise networks and video at Infonetics, told us in an email interview. As a whole, the company is on a turnaround course.

We asked some of our regular contributors to weigh in on the survey and who they see as leaders in the Ethernet switch market.

Ethan Banks, a senior network architect and host of the Packet Pushers podcast, said he can't address HP's share, but he's seeing the company leverage its server and storage customer relationships in the switch market. "They can say, 'You've got our servers. What do you think about our networking products?' It's not an unrealistic story for them to tell. You find out that HP has a whole range of switches."

It's hard to say how much HP's SDN efforts are driving sales, but they are clearly a big part of the company's marketing, Banks said. HP has said it has the most switches that support OpenFlow, and it has marketed a top-to-bottom SDN solution.

Tom Hollingsworth of Gestalt IT said in an email interview that Cisco remains firmly entrenched as the market leader in switching because of port count. "It will be tough to displace them as long as they keep rolling out updates to their existing product lines."

Banks said Cisco has continued to diversify its Catalyst and Nexus product lines to meet more specific customer interests. "Cisco is filling every nook and cranny in the switch niche."

Hollingsworth surmised that HP's gains are coming from end-of-life replacements of campus switches. "I think cost is winning out over additional feature sets like OpenFlow support. HP will likely gain a bit more ground in the campus unless Cisco drives down its prices to squeeze HP out or another campus vendor such as Extreme or Brocade decides to move resources to that arena at the expense of the datacenter lines."

Huawei breaking in
As for Huawei, the Infonetics survey showed that it's starting to show up on buyers' radars, despite being slowed by what the firm described as protectionism in the US market.

The Chinese networking and telecommunications equipment company had battled US government allegations that backdoors may have been built into the company's products to facilitate Chinese espionage. However, recent reports -- based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden -- allege that the NSA broke into Huawei servers, stole sensitive documents, and spied on the company's executives.

Banks said the reports could be changing some people's perceptions of Huawei, which he described as having a solid line of switching products. The line includes the CloudEngine datacenter switch series, which he said has a lot of rich features.

But Hollingsworth said Huawei is "still too hot to make a real impact in the US market." The NSA revelations hurt the government's position on backdoors and wiretapping, but they didn't clarify the situation with Huawei.

"For many network admins, if all your switch vendors are spying on you on behalf of their respective governments, they think 'better the devil you know.' Huawei should bide its time and pull in a couple of big reference customers in order to allay fears of compromised firmware," he said. "The smartest thing they can do for now is to keep their mouth shut until the NSA storm weakens."

A report in a German magazine late last year alleged that the NSA had developed hacking tools for creating backdoors in products from Cisco, Juniper, and other networking vendors.

Dell slips
When asked if the Infonetics survey indicated any vendors losing ground, Machowinski said Dell, but he didn't provide details.

Hollingsworth said Dell is "having a networking identity crisis." He noted that the company recently announced a new OS at Dell World, along with deals with Cumulus and Big Switch.

"Dell needs to find a horse and back it. Otherwise, it will be turned into a white-box hardware vendor that will need to compete with a very tight market," he said. "Selling on cost alone will only work if you are the lowest cost around. Value is where you will keep your customer base happy. Right now, that value is being provided by Cumulus and Big Switch, not Dell."

Marcia Savage is the managing editor for Network Computing, and has been covering technology for 15 years. She has written and edited for CRN and spent several years covering information security for SC Magazine and TechTarget. Marcia began her journalism career in daily ... View Full Bio

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MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
4/29/2014 | 3:17:10 PM
Re: Opportunities
Good point about Huawei, Lorna. I imagine CISOs still would be leery, and like Tom points out, for many network admins it's "better the devil you know." Still, Huawei has been trying hard to build trust  -- it released a white paper on cybersecurity last fall that described the company's internal security program, and another the previous year that urged industry collaboration on cybersecurity.
Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Ninja
4/29/2014 | 2:47:57 PM
Re: Opportunities
At this point it seems like you can spend for Dell/HP/Cisco or you can spend for a pile of white boxes + a smart engineer to make them work. The costs depend on factors like how long you keep gear. The wild card, as Drew says, is how fast silicon is improving. If you want to stay on the cutting edge, white box + smart person seems like the way to go.

For Huawei, you have to admire their pluck. But I can't imagine any CISO signing off on that buy.
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Strategist
4/29/2014 | 1:02:07 PM
Re: Opportunities
Hi Marcia,

It's a good question. If you talk to the switch OS vendors like Cumulus, Big Switch and Pica8, they reliably cite financial services as early adopters, because these companies have the resources and business demands to experiment with new models that might give them an edge in rolling out new services faster.

For adoption in the general market, though,white boxes have to provide some kind of value proposition beyond being cheap, and there's still a ways to go there.

One argument might be that if you're looking to run your network like you run your server infrastructure, a Linux-based OS like Cumulus will resonate with folks who are comfortable with Chef/Puppet tools and scripting.

Then you've got the Dell strategy, where Dell provides a support and services front-end for the third-party OS. Customers still have someone to call if there's a problem, and the hardware comes from a known vendor, but they can experiment with a different switch OS.

Then there's the argument that we might want to start building networks where you swap out hardware every three or four years, just like you do with servers, because the switch silicon will continue to get both more powerful and cheaper. In this case, the white box model makes sense if you've got a network designed where you can swap boxes (and software) in and out like Lego pieces.

Of course, these are just speculations from 50,000 feet. I'd like to hear what the folks on the ground think.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
4/29/2014 | 12:10:49 PM
Re: Opportunities
I agree Drew, the market is poised for innovation. It will be interesting to see how white-box switches fare in the enterprise market. What do you think it will take for them to move beyond the service provider space?
Drew Conry-Murray
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Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Strategist
4/29/2014 | 11:49:55 AM
Opportunities
With all the dust being kicked up by SDN, it's clear a lot of vendors see an opportunity to steal some market share from Cisco. This means a lot of innovation, such as a stronger push toward fabrics, and some gambles, such as Dell reselling third-party switch OSs for its own hardware. Overall, it seems like a good market for customers.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
4/29/2014 | 11:15:27 AM
other views?
The Infonetics survey also polled IT buyers about Alcatel-Lucent, Arista, Avaya, Brocade, Extreme, and Juniper, among others. Do readers see any of these vendors making gains or losing ground in the switch market?
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