In-depth: Routers losing ground to switches

Cabletron made its biggest marketing push ever at this year's InterOp trade show, taking out the giant billboard at Atlanta's Olympic Park and blasting expo-goers with the loudest booth for miles.

They billed it the Clash of the Networking Titans.

Cabletron made its biggest marketing push ever at this year’s InterOp trade show, taking out the giant billboard at Atlanta’s Olympic Park and blasting expo-goers with the loudest booth for miles.

Its ads featured a boxing match between an ageing “Cisco Kid” and a thick-necked pugilist, the “Cabletron Crusher”. We never actually got to see the outcome but it looked depressing for The Kid.

“Well, our guy was younger and about two feet taller,” quipped Cabletron CEO and founder Bob Levine, at Cabletron’s press conference at Atlanta’s Hard Rock Cafe. Everyone laughed, but you got the feeling that this is how Levine and his band of switching zealots really do regard Cisco--as old and increasingly irrelevant--a novel outlook considering Cisco clearly dominates the $4 billion router market.

But routers are losing ground at the core of networks to more flexible switches. In New Zealand, IDC predicts switch sales will increase 23% between 1995 and 2000 while routers will grow only 9.2% over the same period. By 2000 revenue from switches is forecast to be around $22 million, with router sales bringing in $42.5 million.

In contrast to expensive and complex routers, switches are easier to co-ordinate and run at higher bandwidth speeds, relieving capacity constraints.

“You can’t do adds, moves and changes in a router environment,” says Cabletron chief Craig Benson. “Sure, you still need the routing function in the network but we don’t think that the routing function needs to be on a router. We see routing as an application that sits across the network.

“LAN switching is transforming router-based network architecture and emerging switched networks are designed to maximise switching and minimise routing. As a result, the number of routers required in a network is falling as routing moves out towards the edge of the LAN. Looking further ahead, switched networks like ATM eliminate the need for routers altogether. In an ATM network, the routing function is buried inside the protocol itself.”

ATM switch maker Madge, unsurprisingly, takes a similar view. Madge’s Australasian marketing manager, Carmelo San Gil, has said for network planners seeking a more flexible architecture, switching offers a better solution.

“Today’s switching technology delivers a flat OSI layer 2 network, without traditional flat network problems such as broadcast storms and poor security. For example, intelligent switching can distinguish between broadcast and unicast data packets,” he says.

“Most broadcast traffic on a network is caused by network administration functions and protocol overheads. A switch that identifies these packets can apply routing-like functions and reduce traffic to irrelevant parts of the network. Intelligent switching also offers firewall-type security that was once available only with routing,” he says.

“When correctly implemented, switching delivers the same scalability as routing at a lower cost. Low latency paves the way for widespread deployment of virtual and emulated LANs.”

This means organisations can build a single, flat switched network with routers as the connection of last resort for WAN gateways and more complex routing functions.

Meanwhile, Cisco is having to go to war on two fronts. Not only does it have to protect its router business from switch sales, it has to control the switch market.

If you strip away revenues earned from routers, hubs and NICs and look purely at switches, Cisco, Cabletron, Bay Networks and 3Com are about even at $US1.1 billion to $US1.3 billion.

Last year in New Zealand the lion’s share of the market went to 3Com with $2.7 million, followed by Cisco at $2.1 million and Bay Networks at $1.2 million. Cabletron came in at number four with $0.5 million.

But Cabletron has come up with a new weapon in its switching arsenal. A scaled- down version of its pricy MMAC Plus super switch which it pitted at InterOp against Cisco’s Catalyst switch. Cabletron has also announced a Gigabit Ethernet uplink for the MMAC Plus to ship by Christmas.

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