Nortel continues the enterprise fight

Set to unveil VSP 9000 data center switch this week

Even though it filed Chapter 11 and is reportedly looking to sell off huge chunks of its business, Nortel is not giving up the enterprise fight.

The company this week will unveil its next generation large enterprise core/data center aggregation switch. The Virtual Service Platform 9000 is Nortel’s entry into the increasingly crowded core data center switch field, which has seen numerous announcements of late from Nortel’s competitors: Force10, Extreme, Juniper and even 3Com, which is re-entering the battle to provide a lower cost alternative to Cisco during these trying economic times.

Nortel says the VSP 9000 will go up against Cisco’s Nexus 7000, Force10’s ExaScale, Extreme’s BlackDiamond 8900, Brocade’s BigIron RX, Juniper’s EX8216, 3Com’s S12500 and any other switch approaching or exceeding 100Gbps per slot capacity and designed to aggregate hundreds of 10Gbps Ethernet ports.

Nortel’s challenges are significant, however. The company is restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors so its future is uncertain. Also, the VSP 9000 won’t ship for another year, while most competitor offerings are already on the market.

“They’ll miss out on the early mover advantage, and their lack of a channel is a challenge,” says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at the Yankee Group. “But this switch is way ahead of its time in handling virtual environments. Their product strategy is ahead of their corporate strategy.”

Kerravala says a key feature of the VSP 9000 is its support for Nortel’s Split Multi-Link Trunking technology, which is a link aggregation technique in which multiple physical links between two switches and another device – such as a server – are treated as a single high-speed pipe. Traffic loads are balanced across all available links.

This will serve Nortel well in virtualized data centers, Kerravala says, because the switch is already virtualizing a high-speed trunk from multiple, lower speed physical links. Data centers are adopting virtualization at the server, storage, network and application levels to reduce equipment and energy costs, and scale capacity.

The VSP 9000 chassis takes up 1/3 of a data center rack and provides 10 I/O slots for three module types: 24-port 10G Ethernet SFP+, 48-port 1G Ethernet SFP and 48-port 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet. Ten gigabit Ethernet density is 240 per chassis, or 720 per rack.

The IPv4 forwarding rate is 970Mbps per VSP 9000 system. It is designed to scale up to a 27Tbps switching architecture in a single chassis or over 100Tbps in a quad switch-cluster architecture, Nortel says.

Nortel also says the VSP 9000 is designed to provide a lossless switch fabric in the data center, and will support the emerging Converged Enhanced Ethernet standards for this capability. The switch’s architecture is also designed to support 40G and 100G Ethernet interfaces when they are expected to emerge next year.

In addition to SMLT and Routed SMPT, the VSP 9000 supports Provider Link State Bridging (PLSB), “VRF-Lite,” “IP VPN-Lite,” and Virtual Control Service. PLSB disables Ethernet MAC address flooding and learning and replaces it with a link state routing protocol, Intermediate System to Intermediate System (IS-IS), to learn and distribute network information.

IS-IS is adapted in PLSB to share Layer 2 information like backbone MAC addresses. This creates a simplified network layer that can virtualize elements of the network for more efficient resource utilization, Nortel says.

VRF-Lite allows a single VSP 9000 to create multiple Layer 3 routing domains to support multiple customers or user groups. This enables the switch to have multiple unicast and multicast routing instances, and support overlapping IP address spaces.

IP VPN-Lite is an alternative to MPLS for establishing IP VPNs. It can also be used for extending existing MPLS VPNs into the campus or metro area without the need to be learn or configure MPLS, Nortel says.

Virtual Control Service is designed to manage a mix of physical and virtual machines across the network. It offers system administration tools for monitoring and troubleshooting, and management of VMware VMotion live migration for maintenance, business-continuity planning and disaster recovery.

A possible downside to the VSP 9000 is that it is not backward compatible from a hardware standpoint with Nortel’s existing enterprise core switch, the ERS 8600. VSP 9000 will requires a new chassis, switch fabric and control plane, and I/O modules, Nortel says.

That, coupled with Nortel’s tenuous business situation, may make ERS 8600 users consider their own alternatives. But Nortel is still not down and out, Kerravala says.

“They have a fighter’s chance – and that’s more than they had before,” he says.

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