Cisco upgrades switches for multimedia

Cisco is stepping up its enterprise switch game to support the collaboration and multimedia it’s been pushing as the next generation of work.

Enhanced video meeting systems are emerging along with unified communications software that could put far more voice and multimedia on data networks. Organizations also are operating less from the top down and more as teams of people on the edge of the organization, altering traffic patterns, according to Cisco.

The company is set to announce enhancements to its Catalyst 6500 Series and 4500 Series routing switches on Tuesday that are designed to help customers take advantage of those changes. Though growing switch capacities are as inevitable as faster PCs, Cisco said it’s also making more fundamental changes that let IT departments configure their networks for new uses, specifically ones that need low latency and steady performance, such as video.

The company has done so in a way that lets customers with existing switches add the new capabilities without having to invest in new chassis hardware, according to Cisco.For the flagship 6500 line, Cisco is introducing the Virtual Switching Supervisor Engine 720, a hardware module that can make two 6500 switches behave and appear to administrators as one.

It is already shipping and starts at US$31,500. For enterprises with two 6500 switches, this Virtual Switching System 1440 technology means greater scale in several ways: For example, two built-in firewalls can become one higher capacity firewall, and access switches feeding into the 6500s can use uplinks to both simultaneously, doubling capacity.

The switching system can also simplify management by giving the IT department one device to control rather than two.The system delivers additional capacity to power deep-packet inspection technology that Cisco introduced earlier this year. It can increase security and also help switches identify different types of packet streams and give them the performance they need.

At the same time, Cisco’s Catalyst 4500 line is getting an well-due hardware update that includes four new chassis platforms as well as line cards. But the highlight for that line of switches is a supervisor card, the first made with a Cisco chipset called CenterFlex. It breaks down limits on how much memory and other resources that different functions in the switch can use.

This means network managers can configure a 4500 to allocate however much memory is required for a demanding application, such as videoconferencing, said Joe Ammirato, senior director of Cisco’s Gigabit Switching Business Unit. Today, they have less freedom to divide up that memory, he said.

The supervisor engine, called the Catalyst 4500 E-Series Supervisor 6-E with CenterFlex Technology, can be inserted into any existing 4500 Series switch, a workhorse of Cisco’s enterprise lineup that hasn’t had a major upgrade in about several years, Ammirato said.

The supervisor costs $19,995. New interface modules are also coming in the 4500 E-Series release, including two 48-port Gigabit Ethernet cards and a 6-port 10-Gigabit Ethernet module. The new modular chassis platforms, which will deliver a four-fold increase in bandwidth per slot, range from 3 slots to 10 slots and are priced from $995 to $12,495.

All the 4500 products are due this month. Gary Landau, director of infrastructure technology at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles, is interested in the 10-Gigabit Ethernet module and the new capabilities that come with the CenterFlex supervisor card. The university, serving about 3,800 residents and 2,000 staff and faculty, has many 4500 switches in its network, he said.

He plans to upgrade the LAN backbone to 10-Gigabit Ethernet over the next year or two, partly to accommodate multimedia applications.

They include streaming video of lectures, creating podcasts of educational content for the iTunes U project and security surveillance over networked IP (Internet Protocol) cameras. Loyola also has about 1,300 IP phones and plans to convert 700 more to IP over the next several months.

“We want something that will dynamically be able to adapt to whatever’s being done at that time,” Landau said. The 6500’s Virtual Switching System delivers similar benefits as server and storage virtualization, allowing for better load balancing and more efficient use of resources, said Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. It’s the first time this has been done with modular switches, he said.

The widespread videoconferencing demands on networks that Cisco foresees will arrive, but aren’t there yet, said Rob Whiteley of Forrester Research. Cisco’s Telepresence full-room system has finally delivered on the promise of videoconferencing — at a six-figure price — but bringing the practice down to individual desktops as Cisco vows will take some work, he said.

“Telepresence is everything they’ve ever billed it, to me, but they’ve really got to come down a click or two,” Whiteley said.

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