New roles for Cisco switches?

A new WAN module coming from Cisco this week could significantly boost the capabilities of one of its Catalyst LAN switching lines, but the package also clouds the future of some older products.

At the Cisco Partner Summit here, Cisco will roll out the FlexWAN module for the Catalyst 6500 LAN switch, which was announced one year ago. The FlexWAN module sports two slots for WAN port adapters, which can be T-1/E-1, T-3/E-3, ATM or Packet over SONET interfaces.

FlexWAN lets users deploy the Catalyst 6500 as a routing switch - it supports standard routing protocols, such as Border Gateway Protocol 4, Open Shortest Path First and IS-IS - for metropolitan-area networks (MAN) and WANs, as well as LANs. So users need not employ a slower, costlier router, such as a Cisco 7500, for MAN/WAN routing. Generally, routing switches are 10 times faster than traditional routers at one-tenth the cost.

Indeed, sources say Cisco is positioning the Catalyst 6500 with FlexWAN as a single platform for consolidating LAN, MAN and WAN services to lower cost of ownership, simplify network design, ease network management, and migrate existing MAN and WAN networks, such as those based on routers. To foster the migration, FlexWAN even uses the same WAN port adapters as the 7500 and 7200 routers.

Cisco would not comment on FlexWAN specifically. But Cisco officials say that adding WAN capabilities to its routing switches does not make the router obsolete, and the 7500 router is not slotted for retirement.

In addition to the installed base of 7500 users that need to be supported, the 7500 can still be used as a high-density enterprise WAN edge device with a "sweet spot" in T-1/T-3 aggregation, Cisco claims. The box can also function as a virtual private network gateway, and supports IBM SNA connectivity through a channel interface processor module.

Voice enhancements are on the way as well, according to the company.

Conversely, the Catalyst 6500 is optimised for T-3 and above, sources say. It's designed for users consolidating their LAN and WAN backbones with Gigabit Ethernet switches, and who need to extend Layer 4-7 switching, server load balancing and application hosting capabilities across MANs and WANs, they say.

This presents another overlap scenario: Cisco already has a gigabit core routing switch with WAN capabilities - the Catalyst 8500, which began shipping less than two years ago. Cisco rolled out two flavors - the Campus Switch Router (CSR) for Ethernet networks, and the Multiservice Switch Router for ATM backbones.

Cisco now says the Catalyst 6500 is its strategic Gigabit Ethernet core routing switch, and the 8500 is targeted solely at core ATM networks. This positioning effectively eliminates 50% of the market for the 8500. Given that campus ATM is a declining market, the 8500 - less than two years after its debut - is already a legacy product.

But by focusing the 8500 squarely on ATM, Cisco now has two different five-slot core ATM campus switches, which presents yet another overlap scenario: the 4-year-old LightStream 1010 and the Catalyst 8510. Cisco says the 8510 represents the next generation of the LightStream 1010 - indeed, both switches share the same ATM modules.

With overlapping switches addressing a market in decline, something has to give.

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