You can't blame Cisco Systems for being defensive.
ARN's sister publication Network World held a Layer 3 Switching showdown at the recent Networld+Interop event here. And everyone, it seems, wanted a piece of Cisco.
The showdown separated some of the fact from the fiction regarding Layer 3 switches.
In addition to Cisco, participants included 3Com, Cabletron Systems, Extreme Networks, Foundry Networks, Nortel Networks and Packet Engines.
The vendors fired pointed questions at each other and responded to questions from a panel of industry observers: Esmeralda Silva, LAN analyst at International Data Corp (IDC); Kevin Tolly, president of The Tolly Group; and Jim Duffy, Network World senior editor. The debate focused on the price, performance, throughput and feature set of this new class of internetworking product.
Cisco took the most heat for pricing. Layer 3 switches generally cost less than $US700 per 100Mbps port, but Cisco's Catalyst 8500 can cost up to $2000 per 100Mbps port, according to Cisco product literature.
When asked how Cisco can market the 8500 as a Layer 3 switch at that price, vice president of enterprise marketing Jayshree Ullal replied: "I want to correct the fallacy that the 8500 costs $2000 per port. Depending on configuration it can be as low as $1000 to $1200 per port. Second, I don't believe the 8500 is simply a Layer 3 switch with fast forwarding.
In fact its wire-speed
"It is, in fact, a wire-speed switch router with full Cisco IOS services, features and nonblocking capability, as well as the ability to add native ATM switching and metropolitan-area network interfaces. That, therefore, takes it well beyond a classical fast switch."
Ullal added that Cisco's Catalyst 5500 and 2926G switches can provide Layer 3 features at $500 to $600 per port.
But Cisco wasn't going to get off that easily.
Bernard Daines, founder of Packet Engines, asked Ullal how long Cisco can use its IOS software as a "hammer" to force customers to buy overpriced boxes that aren't wire speed.
Ullal replied: "IOS is really about providing consistent command-line interface and software features, be they quality of service, security, redundancy, high availability, diagnostics or debug capability. It's not meant to be an excuse for providing best-in-class products. We have to, as a company, provide best-of-breed products."
Cisco was also grilled on the positioning of its Layer 3 switches vis-a-vis its traditional software-based 7000 series routers, the highly profitable products that made Cisco the internetworking leader it is today. IDC's Silva asked: "Most of the panelists, including Cisco, I suspect, plan to add WAN access interfaces and multiprotocol support to their Layer 3 switches. Where do you sell the 7000, and where do you sell the Catalyst 8540?"
The 8500 line is targeted at the core of campus networks, while the 7000's "sweet spot" is WAN aggregation with channelised E-1 and E-3 interfaces, as well as SNA and multiprotocol support, Ullal replied. Cisco will be adding "convenience" WAN support to the 8500, she said, but the company continues to position the products as complementary campus core and WAN aggregation offerings.
Ullal then took some jabs of her own. Of Cabletron, she asked how the company could endorse flattened topologies, then policy-based switching, and then Layer 3 switching for increasing network performance.
"How do you explain the contradictions of all three strategies, and how are you rationalising all three?" Ullal asked.
"I don't see it as a contradiction at all," replied PG Menon, Cabletron vice president of marketing. "Unlike calling a Layer 3 switch a full-function router and charging a premium, what we want to do is provide the latest technology to our customers, right away, at prices that make sense."
Ullal then blasted Nortel for forcing users to undergo a hardware upgrade to get IPX support on Nortel's Accelar switches. "How do you expect a customer to have additional hardware at additional cost for an additional protocol?," Ullal asked.
Nortel has a discount program for current Accelar customers who want to upgrade to IPX routing, said Basil Alwan, vice president of product management at Nortel. "I'm not sure if Cisco has installed Accelar yet, but if it has we could offer that program to you as well," Alwan quipped.
Vendors didn't save all of their digs for Cisco. Nortel challenged 3Com to a Layer 3 switch bake-off after claiming that 3Com's CoreBuilder 3500 can only forward 48 per cent of traffic at wire speed on a gigabit link.
3Com was happy to oblige.
"I think we would have to have a system test," said 3Com's Mick Seaman, chief technology officer for the company's large enterprise business unit, jabbing at Alwan's focus on per-port, rather than aggregate-switch, performance.