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Who Owns The LAN? We Rank Six Switch Vendors

Cisco leads our IT Pro Ranking with an overall score of 77%, but HP, Dell, and others are finding ways to compete.

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The LAN switch has always been the workhorse of corporate networks, and that's not about to change: Companies are supporting more traffic-generating multimedia, like VoIP and video. A diverse range of devices, such as IP phones and security cameras, need configuration and power. And there's a push by security teams to differentiate between corporate- and user-owned gadgets.

Given that, we wanted to gauge IT's preferences for LAN equipment vendors, delve into buying criteria such as performance and cost, and see who best delivers on table-stakes features like port density and management software. Our InformationWeek LAN Equipment Vendor IT Pro Ranking Survey drew responses from 444 IT pros, all of whom use and evaluate LAN equipment.

While we asked about 14 vendors, only six--Brocade, Cisco, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Juniper, and Netgear--garnered enough responses to qualify for assessment in our full report, which is available free with registration at informationweek.com/reports/ lanranking. For that select group, we asked respondents to rate the relative importance of 11 criteria on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest score; the result is an overall composite ranking. Cisco had a good showing, pulling a 4.4 out of 5 for product reliability. No other vendor scored as high, though HP and Juniper came close, each earning a 4. Cisco also took the top spot for performance, with a 4.2. Only Cisco and Juniper broke the 4.0 mark in this area.

But respondents gave Cisco a raspberry when it comes to acquisition costs: a 3.0, the lowest score of all the vendors rated. IT professionals may be willing to pay more for key attributes, but that doesn't mean they like it.

In comparison, acquisition cost was a bright spot for Netgear and Dell, which topped the rankings with 4.2 and 4.1, respectively. But when we looked at respondent perceptions in areas like breadth of product line, innovation, and reliability, both are at the bottom of the pack--Dell and Netgear switches are seen as low-cost, commodity items. Dell is trying to move out of the commodity switch market by, for example, its acquisition in August of Force10 Networks, a switch maker well known in data center networking and high-performance computing circles. Expect Dell to use Force10's products to fill out its campus LAN portfolio.

Still, Cisco's high marks on everything but pricing illustrate the challenge facing rivals like Dell as they try to move upscale. For example, we asked where in the network respondents use, have used, or have evaluated switch products. Cisco leads in the four key areas where IT deploys switches: the access, distribution, and core layers, and the remote office.

Cisco's dominance of the network core is largely because of the phenomenal success of its Catalyst 6500 chassis switch. While some competitors, such as HP, haven't offered an attractive alternative to the 6500, others are gaining mindshare. For instance, 58% of respondents have used or evaluated Brocade at the core. In the remote office category, Netgear and Cisco are neck and neck, separated by just a percentage point in terms of overall use. Small-office switches from both vendors are inexpensive; Netgear's devices are also quite feature-rich and easy to use. Juniper lagged the pack here, with 29% small-office usage vs. 52% and 51%, respectively, for Cisco and Netgear. We expect to see a shake-up in this market, however, as Cisco and Juniper produce compact yet capable switches that, like their enterprise-class models, can be centrally managed.

Top 6 Equipment Vendors In Use

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