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What factors should I consider when buying server networking gear?

We're looking to expand our 10 Gb Ethernet networks on servers, and I'm trying to figure out which way to go. What are people deploying?

When 10 Gigabit Ethernet moved to the network access layer, the IT industry realized it needed cheaper 10 Gb Ethernet switches.

Most network gear shares similar underlying technology: generally some variation of a Broadcom commodity chip. The real differentiators are software and support. When evaluating 10-Gb ports, include both the software licensing and support costs along with the hardware price and features.

Most traditional networking vendors, such as Cisco with merchant plus, moved from custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) to commodity chips, or some mix of both. This change reduces hardware costs significantly, but makes no difference to software and support prices, which have remained largely untouched. These traditional vendors generally support a greater variety of networking features -- non-standard routing protocols, advanced VRF features -- so the cost structure makes sense.

Some of the newer, network OS-only players, such as Cumulus Networks and IP Infusion, are moving quickly to gain feature parity in software with the incumbent networking vendors. These companies provide only software and support, and certify the networking OS to work on certain open hardware.

In evaluating gear or software from any networking vendors, start by determining what features you need. If you want a cheap 10-Gb access switch with basic layer 2 and layer 3 functionality, a piece of open networking hardware, also known as a white box, coupled with a third-party network OS is likely a great fit. If you need more advanced network functions, you still need to go with one of the incumbent vendors. But don't assume any features are inherently supported because of the brand name. Even those vendors are largely using commodity chips in their networking gear, so they have limitations. Certain features that relied on custom ASICs in the switch hardware are no longer supported on new switches.

Jon Langemak, CCNP/IP, is a network engineer at a Minnesota-based corporation. He works primarily on Cisco network solutions and enjoys dabbling in other fields. He runs the blog Das Blinken Lichten to document new technologies and testing concepts.



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