2003 Survivor's Guide to Infrastructure

Strengthen your backbone, smarten up your network and balance your traffic--but don't expect prices to come tumbling down just yet.

December 31, 2002

11 Min Read
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You can always count on the cost of network equipment dropping over time. The slowdown in spending may give some vendors even more incentive to cut prices to make a deal. Still, some low-end equipment is becoming commoditized by companies such as Dell Computer, which has proven it knows how to make a good profit on commodity products. This year, for instance, Dell introduced a line of high-performance 10/100 and gigabit switches that are long on features but short on price. We tested one in our Real-World Labs® and found its performance uncompromising. The price per port is so inexpensive that Cisco and 3Com have stopped selling their switches on Dell's Web site.

Prices this low are compelling, of course, but keep in mind that price isn't everything. If you are going to scale your network beyond 100 or 200 devices, you'll run into problems using a commodity product. Dell's switches, for example, have low port density and lack management features.

Survivor's Guide to 2003


Mobile & Wireless

Network & Systems


Storage & Server


Business Apps

Digital Convergence

The Business Case


You could save hardware costs by mixing and matching these low-cost devices with a higher-end solution, but keep in mind that this combination will add to your TCO (total cost of ownership)--the more vendors you deal with, the greater your support costs. It's a scary time to get too comfy with just one vendor, however. If you do, be sure you investigate the long-term viability of that vendor and install the standards-based versions of its products.Enterprise Backbone

By next year, all the major vendors will have 10 Gigabit Ethernet products supporting the IEEE 802.3ae standard, which was approved in June of 2002. Likewise, the vendors that successfully sold you gigabit for the desktop will be talking about how to aggregate all that gigabit bandwidth at the backbone. Do you need 10 Gigabit Ethernet? For most, it's a simple decision: If you need 10 Gigabit at the backbone, you'll know it, and you'll pay for it--one 10-Gigabit port will probably cost tens of thousands of dollars, even if prices drop next year from 2002's prices of $50,000 to $100,000.

This is still an immature market, however, and you need to be wary of vendors that are quite willing to sell you 10-Gigabit ports but that haven't published independent, third-party tests that prove that their boxes can support the bandwidth, especially with ACL (access-control lists) and QoS (Quality of Service) features enabled.

If you feel you need 10 Gigabit, consider restricting your purchase to products that support Xenpak interfaces. Xenpak cartridges are equivalent to the GBICs (gigabit interface converters) used for gigabit connections and will let you easily change out the four different types of optics defined for 10 Gigabit as needed. But beware of vendors that will support only their Xenpaks, as such practices defeat the purpose. Third-party Xenpack suppliers will drive down the price per port of 10 Gigabit and some vendors are understandably not excited about that.

Although no vendors have announced plans to upgrade their backbone chassis, it's probably just a matter of time. If you're going to do a major backbone upgrade, you need to know how old a vendor's current technology is and when its next-generation product is shipping. Network equipment is not only getting cheaper, it's getting smarter. Most routers and switches now let you look deep into the contents of a packet and decide what to do with it depending on what is found.

Many switches that normally operate at Layer 2 now let you add security filtering at Layer 3. This means you can get tighter control over who has access to what within your organization. And packets can be prioritized by IP address, port combinations and DiffServ (Differentiated Services) code points. Many products accomplish this using ASICs that maintain true wire-speed performance.

As for Layer 2 QoS, look for products that support the 802.1p standard. And if you have a routed backbone, make sure it can carry Layer 2 QoS from end to end. When you consider that a router puts a new frame on every packet, any Layer 2 QoS is lost unless a translation takes place as it goes in and out of the router. This is especially critical for latency-sensitive applications like VoIP (voice over IP). If a VoIP packet is marked with Layer 2 and Layer 3 QoS, as many IP phones do by the time the packet gets into a Layer 2 network on the other side of the router, it will be on its own unless the core router rewrites the outgoing frame with Layer 2 QoS. You also want to be able to enforce your QoS policies at the core--the core router should be able to rewrite the QoS attributes in a packet based on your policies so that you are not at the mercy of the end stations.

The biggest problem you will encounter is configuring and managing it all. The implementation of many of these features usually requires the use of cryptic commands at the command line. If you have a larger network, you could end up with a poorly documented mishmash of ACLs. A good GUI-based configuration-management application can go a long way toward addressing this problem. Look for vendors whose products come with GUI interfaces that let you quickly and easily program end-to-end QoS.

3Q02 Market Leaders Gigabit Ethernet

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Many organizations have discovered the benefit of packet shapers. This technology makes creative use of the TCP protocol to impact the behavior of packets before they arrive on the network. This is different than QoS implemented in a switch or router, which can control only the priority as traffic passes through the device. Although you pay for the incoming bandwidth, you wouldn't be able to control the traffic that comes down your Internet pipe unless you implement QoS in the router at your ISP's point of presence. Devices from Packeteer and Sitara Networks can send TCP flow-control messages to the source to slow its rate of transmission before it even gets in your incoming Internet pipe. These devices also tend to be much better at looking beyond port numbers to identify applications, a critical function as there is otherwise nothing to stop an application from hiding inside Port 80, for example. In addition, they come with substantial reporting capabilities, making this a technology you should be taking a serious look at, especially for expensive Internet and wide area connections.

Asking for Directions

Ethernet Switches

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For decades, telecom people have been balancing long-distance traffic across multiple vendors. This PBX feature, known as least-cost routing, has made it possible to route traffic across multiple hunt groups to reduce costs and reliance upon specific carriers for legacy voice communications. The least-cost routing concept makes even more sense for Internet traffic where performance can vary significantly from provider to provider at any given time. Route optimization products make it possible to route traffic dynamically across multiple ISPs with the potential for significant cost-savings and performance improvements.

Route balancing is also an effective way to mitigate the performance risks of setting up VPNs that traverse multiple ISPs. Route balancers also provide reports that give you insight into your ISP's hour-by-hour performance. This information can be invaluable when it's time to renegotiate your next ISP contract.The route-balancing market is maturing--you'll find a several vendors offering route balancing in an appliance or as a service. This functionality does not come cheap, but vendors are starting to offer low-end versions of their products for smaller organizations and branch offices. Route balancers usually let you route by cost as well, giving you better control over usage-sensitive links. If you haven't caved in already, expect to find lots of pressure from vendors telling you to connect your desktops at 1 gigabit. They are looking for another purchasing cycle and they'll mention enticing selling points like Dell is shipping some of its PCs with gigabit cards. They might even tell you that their mothers have 1 gigabit to the desktop. Don't listen. The fact is that most applications will do fine with 10-Mbps connections. Think about it--many of these applications are designed to run well for telecommuters and road warriors who have a few megabits per second in bandwidth available to them at best. The bandwidth available to wireless networks can be even lower. There will always be the exceptions, but if you're not running collaboration software or editing digital movies, the ROI (return on investment) for desktop gigabit is questionable at best.

Prices are coming down fast for wiring-closet switches, however, so if you are upgrading anyway, can get a low enough price per port and have good quality Category 5 or Cat5e, go for it. Upgrading now could save you the cost of doing it later. Expect cable vendors to push the Cat6 wiring solutions that were approved by the EIA/TIA in June of 2002.

If you are upgrading cabling or working on new construction, consider putting in the absolute latest standard but otherwise, you shouldn't even be thinking about it. Currently, there are no electronics even in the planning stages that can take advantage of the higher bandwidth capabilities of Cat6 and it will cost a lot more to install. Additionally Cat7 is on the drawing board and will involve lots of shielding and even greater corresponding costs. You may hear some rumblings about Cat8 as well, but that's designed for residential wiring.

Power to the Closet: UPS 802.3af

As VoIP and wireless LANs increase in popularity, the benefits linked to powering these devices over the Ethernet cable (from the switch in the closet) also increases. Switches that provide power via each Ethernet port provide the flexibility to locate the AP (access point) where you need it without worrying about power requirements.With VoIP, you can have an IP phone without having to mess with power adapters. An even bigger advantage is that you can provide battery backup for all the devices from a more central location like a wiring closet. Just plan on investing in UPSs to get the full benefit.

The IEEE 802.3af standard, which defines power over Ethernet, should be approved some time in the spring of 2003. Make sure you don't invest in any switching equipment that supplies power over Ethernet unless the vendor gives you something in writing that guarantees a full replacement if it isn't interoperable with the upcoming standard. You should also be watching for a new MIB from the IETF that will provide a standardized way of monitoring power status using SNMP management software. If you're thinking about VoIP, you should consider putting in 802.3af-capable switches.


As your carrier contracts expire, be sure to include language in the next round of negotiations that gives you wiggle room should the vendor come on hard times. You also want to invest more time to establish relationships with competitors should you decide to jump ship. It's easy to become dependent on one vendor, and viewing the vendor as a partner can be mutually beneficial. This can be productive, but you need to keep your options open. The vendor will be glad to have you as a partner, as long as you are a paying customer.

Unfortunately, you aren't going to see prices go down here--carriers have proven that they can't offer dirt-cheap pricing and remain financially viable. The one bright spot here is that as regional carriers enter the long distance market, there will be more competition there, which will drive down prices.

A stable, dependable infrastructure is vital to the success of any organization. Fight for the resources you need to keep it that way. And remember that you depend on all your vendors for your own success and survival. Make sure they can deliver, and keep your options open.

Peter Morrissey is a full-time faculty member of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, and a contributing editor and columnist for Network Computing. Write to him at [email protected].Dell: Will it continue to make inroads in the networking equipment market?Extreme Networks: A player when it comes to next-generation networking.

Foundry Networks: Heavy duty, high speed networking.

netVmg: Optimizing routes, TCP flow by TCP flow.

Proficient Networks: Making multihoming really work.

Qwest: Will it be the next carrier to go down?Radware: LinkProof tames multiple ISP links.

RouteScience: Doing what BGP never dreamed of doing.

Sockeye Networks: For those who want to rent, not buy, route optimization.

WorldCom: Will it emerge leaner, smarter and stronger?

• "Dell Powers Its Way Into Higher Density, Managed Switched Connections" (Network Computing, July 22, 2002)• "10 Gig Can't Wait To Interoperate" (Network Computing, Aug. 5, 2002)

• "Warding off WAN Gridlock" (Network Computing, Nov. 15, 2002)

• "Sockeye's GlobalRoute 2.0 for Managed Routing Services" (Network Computing, July 8, 2002)

• "Crossed Wires" (Network Computing, Oct. 21, 2002)

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