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Who Owns The LAN? We Rank Six Switch Vendors

Dec 12, 2011 (03:12 AM EST)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=232200562


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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.

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Don't Reinvent The Wheel

IT pros voice strong support for standards: Just 1% say they see proprietary features as having better integration and interoperation than standards-based features vs. 45% who say standards are critical and they don't use proprietary features where standards exist. While it's a nice sentiment, the reality likely doesn't match theory. For example, if you're a Cisco shop and you run voice over IP, you're most likely using the proprietary Cisco Discovery Protocol for device discovery. Yes, all vendors dance over the standards line sometimes, but Cisco makes a habit of using proprietary protocols even in the face of available standards. For example, device discovery has been standardized via the IEEE Link Layer Discovery Protocol, but Cisco continues to offer and improve its CDP. Other examples are Cisco's use of its own standard for power over Ethernet instead of the IEEE's PoE+ and its use of proprietary routing protocols such as IGRP/EGRP.

Respondents rank cost per port most important among a list of 15 features, just ahead of a four-way tie among dynamic port configuration, per-port security, management software, and port density. While the latter two speak directly to capital and operational costs, more intriguing is respondents' emphasis on dynamic port configuration and per-port security.

Dynamic port configuration simplifies management because the switch, using a discovery protocol, configures the network port based on a defined profile. For example, a VoIP phone should use power over Ethernet to power the device, get an IP address, register for E911, apply a quality-of-service profile, and be placed on a voice VLAN. A laptop plugging into the same port should have a different configuration. Having someone hard-code configurations for every device is costly, error-prone, and inflexible, so per-port configuration is valuable to IT. Cisco has done quite a bit of work--both standards-based and proprietary--to enable dynamic port configuration. Brocade, HP, and Juniper have similar features, but they either aren't as good or haven't been articulated well, because they're perceived as less innovative than Cisco.

We expect that Juniper's recently announced Simply Connected program is a good starting point for remedying that; the program aims to enable IT to manage and secure wired and wireless devices from a single interface. After all, speeds and feeds are largely the same from vendor to vendor, and they all have increasingly similar feature sets for the campus LAN. Managing wired and wireless devices in a unified manner, extracting data from them, and integrating them with other systems will become more important as an inevitable wave of automation gains speed.

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Respondents show a surprising lack of interest in VoIP and multimedia features, rating them eighth among 15 LAN features, in contrast to predictions from Cisco CEO John Chambers and some analysts that we're poised for a significant increase on enterprise networks, primarily from video.

More surprising to us is the relative parity of scores when discussing Layer 2 encryption--scores ranged from 3.8 for Cisco to 3.1 for Netgear, odd because Cisco is actually the only vendor that supports Layer 2 encryption right now, via 802.1AE and 802.1XREV on certain models of Catalyst switches. HP says it will start supporting Layer 2 encryption soon, and the company excels at per-port security, with denial-of-service detection, IP address lockdown, robust port authentication, and a proprietary feature to support both multiple 802.1X supplicants as well as non-802.1X hosts on the same port.

However, based on our survey results, IT pros appear unaware of these capabilities. Despite--or, perhaps, because of--that lack of awareness, respondents overall seem content with their LAN vendors, with 60% saying they're not considering changing or adding vendors. They're almost equally split between single-vendor and multivendor LANs: 52% integrate gear, while 48% are homogenous. Most of those with more than one LAN supplier say they've acquired a mix of gear over time. When contemplating new LAN gear, most respondents say having other equipment by a particular vendor influences their purchase decisions. Data shows that a big driver here is the expectation that gear from one provider will interoperate--though that may be more wishful thinking than reality. Respondents also give incumbents an edge because they believe having products from one vendor means they'll share a common management interface. That may be true within a product line, where the software management layer--the GUI--is often integrated for switching and routing; however, once other services, like load balancing and firewalls, are added, that dream of a single pane of glass is often shattered.

Though most respondents don't plan to change LAN vendors, some could be induced to jump ship. Of the 178 respondents considering replacing or adding a vendor, the top driver is substantial capital cost savings. But money isn't the only reason IT might consider a change: The opportunity to get advanced features and a clear technology advantage compared with other vendors--and presumably, their own competitors--is also important, each cited by about one-third of respondents.

Do you have a single- or multivendor LAN?