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12th Annual Well-Connected Awards: Network Infrastructure

When we think about network infrastructure, switches and routers leap to mind--and leave just as quickly. But this year, convergence supplied the combustion to make infrastructure a hot topic, and brought communications equipment sales close to the $100 billion mark. IP PBX switches are taking on a central role in enterprise voice-communication upgrades, with CTI (computer telephone integration) and voice-processing equipment along for the ride.

Revenue from enterprise communications equipment rose to $98.3 billion in 2005, a 6.9 percent increase over 2004 revenue, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association. A growing chunk of that revenue came from sales of IP PBXs, which increased 22 percent in 2005. Furthermore, the installed base for key systems and Centrex are bound to decrease as businesses look toward the alternative, hosted IP PBX.

Our Well-Connected Awards for small office telephony solutions and hosted IP PBX services become more relevant as these businesses move toward a converged IP network. Both Nortel Networks and 8x8 stood above the crowd and can easily fuel the evolution from digital voice to IP telephony.

The Big Picture

It's easy for routers and switches to be well-connected; their primary job is to provide link states and connectivity. Unfortunately for infrastructure equipment makers, it's hard to see these devices in the data center. You only notice them when they're down.

When they're up and providing connectivity and applications on the desktop, these critical devices go unseen and unpraised. This is especially true for data center switches, which can bring all your applications together with 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Data center switches enable convergence, supporting both voice and data applications and many support inline power. They all support redundancy in power supplies, switching fabrics and management modules. When they're working, they are invisible--and that would be fine if the switches never broke down. But to avoid disaster, you need the tools to make problems visible early. Alcatel's OmniSwitch 9700, for example, has excellent management interfaces to the switch that let you view problems that may lead to failure. If a module or part fails, the 9700 provides redundancy and resilience.

From the broader perspective, new multiservice switches from the likes of Nortel and Alcatel are bringing enterprise data centers together in better ways than their predecessors. Although the switches support existing frame relay and ATM networks, they're also equipped to handle next-generation networks based on IP and MPLS. When more widely adopted, MPLS will enable cost-effective VPNs and end-to-end QoS for converged applications such as voice and video.

Centralized Resources

Collapsing equipment and services in a centralized data center has been a popular way for enterprises to reduce costs and maximize resources. Virtualization software, such as Solaris 10 and Microsoft Windows 2003 Virtual Server, gave veteran VMware some competition this year. Throughout the year, we also looked at products that streamline data center processes, as well as automate and eliminate repetitive tasks in virtualization, such as BMC's Virtualizer, and provide training, such as MIMIC's Virtual Lab CCNA.

Centralization itself couldn't have succeeded without solutions like load balancers that deal with the increased loads, and WAN accelerators that improve application performance for remote sites. Enterprises will not centralize their resources at the cost of leaving remote sites and branch offices impoverished, without fast access to applications. The device that handled load balancing and WAN acceleration best this year, Coyote Point's Equalizer E450si, showed us how easy it is to create a cluster of services for load balancing. Riverbed Technology's Steelhead appliances, meanwhile, gave us WAN accelerators that do some of the work locally, but fast.

Network Infrastructure Winners

Data Center Switch
Winner: Alcatel OmniSwitch 9700 (GA Dec. 8, 2005)
Alcatel's OmniSwitch 9700 came with all the basics on board for a data center switch: 10-slot chassis with redundant power, management modules and fabric. Adding a couple of ports of 10-Gigabit Ethernet, 48 ports of Gigabit Ethernet, PoE (Power over Ethernet), as well as support for voice and data traffic, gives you a superior converged routing and switching platform that fits into standard rack space. The switch also supports BGP-4, RIP, OSPF and DVMRP (Distance Vector Multicast Routing Protocol).

Alcatel set the OmniSwitch 9700 apart from its competition by loading it with excellent management tools that support RMON, standard IETF, SNMP version 1, 2 and 3 MIBs as well as proprietary enterprise MIBs. The 9700 has flexible file management, a Web-based console and dedicated software (OmniVista 2500) to manage multiple OmniSwitches.

Low-End Switch
Winner: Hewlett-Packard ProCurve 2626
Low-end switches keep enterprises well connected with plug-and-play functionality, 24 ports of 10BASE-T/ 100BASE-TX, and at least one Gigabit Ethernet uplink, all for less than $750. The best-connected switch in this category was Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve 2626. HP manufactured the ProCurve with flexible uplink properties and exceptional management interfaces. The device supports standards-based SNMP, offers SSH (Secure Shell) console access and features a no-nonsense Web-based GUI. A lifetime warranty and low price add to the ProCurve's appeal.

Load Balancer
Winner: Coyote Point Systems Equalizer E450si
A well-connected load balancer should apply a predictable service to an unpredictable load across servers. Coyote Point's Equalizer E450si does all that easily and affordably, using a round-robin algorithm or by assigning static weights to servers. It even has dedicated software to make load-balancing decisions and supports persistent connections for e-commerce. The E450si simplifies load balancing using cluster management and NAT (Network Address Translation). Assign an IP address to a cluster, configure the cluster for TCP services like HTTP or FTP, then group servers in clusters. No problem.

Coyote Point's E450si also supports SSL acceleration and has an option to offload SSL operations to dedicated hardware.

Remote Office Solution
Winner: Riverbed Technology Steelhead appliance with RiOS 2.0
A pair of WAN accelerators will compress and deliver traffic between a branch office and a centralized data center. But to do the job best, look at a pair of Steelheads. Riverbed's Steelhead 2.0, like other WAN accelerators, optimizes and accelerates all TCP traffic, such as HTTP and FTP, using compression. It also speeds applications using CIFS, MAPI and SQL across the WAN. But it's more than a compression service. Riverbed's Scalar Data Referencing allows Steelheads to keep track of the data traversing the WAN. When data is re-requested, instead of resending it across the WAN, the Steelhead local to the user serves up the data.

Virtual Lab
Winner: Gambit Communications MIMIC Virtual Lab CCNA 1.5
MIMIC Virtual Lab will keep your administrators well-connected to Cisco IOS. Virtual Lab simulates a Cisco IOS environment by using a closed combination of seven devices, including Cisco Catalyst 2900, 3500 XL, 6500 Series switches and 7200 Series routers.

Administrators work and play with the IOS to set BGP and RIP routes, configure NAT, set ACL configurations and more, all off-line and out of harm's way. Up to 20 different step-by-step tutorials walk you through standard configurations such as failover and redundancy operations. MIMIC Virtual Lab comes with an SNMP simulator, so configuration changes can be viewed in SNMP MIB values.

Design, Innovation Or Enhancement
Winner: Sun Microsystems SRSS (Sun Ray Server Software) 3.1
We expected great design, smooth integration or exceptional enhancement from the winner in this category. Sun Microsystems' SRSS (Sun Ray Server Software) 3.1 delivers all three. SRSS had the best design and enhancement using a server-based computing architecture with cool Sun Ray DTUs (Desktop Units). Combine Solaris 10 and the SunWut package with a Java runtime environment and the SRSS is ready to serve applications to Sun Ray DTUs using Web-based management. In a bandwidth-challenged environment, SRSS uses an aggressive compression ratio to pass I/O from server to thin client.

Virtual Manager
Winner: BMC Software Virtualizer 2.4
No Well-Connected Awards would be complete without virtualization--a way to run multiple operating systems and applications on discreet platforms. Until BMC released Virtualizer 2.4, however, virtualization lacked automation. Virtualizer is a policy-based automation tool that provisions servers, applications and storage on demand, all within VMware's ESX Server environment. Agents on servers collect performance and availability statistics and pass that data to Virtualizer, which makes decisions, such as enabling or disabling a server or service, on the fly. Virtualizer supports Linux, Microsoft Windows and Solaris. It also integrates with F5 Networks' Big-IP and Altiris' Deployment Server.

Small Office Telephony Solution
Winner: Nortel Networks Business Communications Manager (BCM) 50
Small offices got a lot of attention last year from 3Com, Avaya and Nortel Networks. Nortel's attention-worthy entry-level BCM 50 telephony solution provides enterprise-class features and options. The BCM 50's basic features include call transfer, holds, DID (Direct Inward Dialing) and intercom. For an added price, Nortel supplies advanced options such as voicemail with auto-attendant, unified messaging, fax services, VoIP trunking and even a call center for up to 10 agents.

Small Office Hosted IP PBX
Winner: 8x8 Packet8 Virtual Office
Like IP PBX switch makers, national IP telephony services targeted small businesses last year. These services provide IP phones through a hosted IP PBX switch. Packet8 Virtual Office has excellent tools for call management and tracks QoS (quality of service) between the switch and the phones. It also has a rich feature set with a low subscription price. Virtual Office includes preprogrammed handsets with soft keys dedicated to office activities such as accessing voicemail, forwarding calls and providing a fast path to the conference bridge. The phones use MGCP (Media Gateway Control Protocol) and G.729 codecs for signaling.

Where Are They Now?
Last year, Cisco Systems ISR (Integrated Services Routers) 2800 and 3800 Series Routers received our Well-Connected Award and led the field in infrastructure products. The ISR Series bundled a family of devices that included integrated voice processing and security as well as all the usual data services for routing and switching.

Today, Cisco is adding functionality to the ISR Series with its AON (Application-Oriented Network) technology. AON uses a routing system that integrates application messaging, monitoring, and security into the fabric. Cisco released AON with support for WebSphere MQ, but it needs additional support from vendors like Oracle and SAP to make a big impact in the infrastructure market. After all, third-party vendors must provide the business logic to embed into the router's fabric. Without it, the ISR Series Routers and other AON devices would not be able to view and route messages at the application layer.

Sean Doherty is a contributing editor to Network Computing and an attorney. Previously he worked as a project manager and IT engineer at Syracuse University and helped develop centrally supported applications and storage systems.