Cisco building switch ports to feed faster Wi-Fi

Cisco Systems is forging ahead with LAN switches designed to support faster Wi-Fi access points even while an ethernet standard for the technology they use is still taking shape.

The switches have ports that can operate at 2.5Gbps (bits per second) or 5Gbps in addition to standard Gigabit and 10-Gigabit ethernet. The two new speeds let the switches keep up with Wi-Fi access points that can run at more than 1Gbps, and they work with the cables most enterprises already have.

Wi-Fi is finally catching up with wired ethernet as a way for people to connect to an enterprise LAN. The second generation of IEEE 802.11ac access points can deliver greater than 1.3Gbps of capacity, up to nearly 7Gbps depending on configuration. These so-called “Wave 2” products are just hitting the market now.

But with speed comes a series of challenges: To enjoy more than a gigabit out on the wireless edge of the LAN, network engineers need to have a switch port with greater than Gigabit ethernet for each access point. They can do it with 10-Gigabit ethernet, but that protocol requires Category 6a cable to cover a common 100-meter network link. Most enterprises are outfitted with older cable types, and it can be expensive to pull new wires through a building.

That’s the idea behind 2.5Gbps and 5Gbps ethernet, which is under development in an official IEEE task group that only recently began meeting. But vendors aren’t waiting for a standard to be set for these so-called multigigabit speeds. Network silicon maker Aquantia has had components that offer the two speeds since last year, and on Tuesday Cisco announced switches with the new capabilities that it expects to ship in the second quarter.

Though there’s no standard yet to ensure Cisco’s switches will work with future products from all vendors, there’s a good chance the task group will come up with something close to what Cisco has. Last October it joined Aquantia and other vendors in forming the NBase-T Alliance, an industry group to promote the new technology. The group now counts Intel, Qualcomm, Ruckus Wireless and Aruba Networks among its members. Broadcom, which supplies chips to many networking vendors, belongs to a rival group called the MGBase-T Alliance.

Cisco will offer its so-called multigigabit-capable ethernet ports in several new switch models. To its line of modules for the Catalyst 4500E chassis, it will add a configuration with 48 total ports, 12 of them with multigigabit capability. In the Catalyst 3850 line of stackable switches, it will offer a 48-port configuration with 12 multigigabit ports and a 24-port, all-multigigabit version.

The company will also introduce the eight-port Catalyst 3560-CX, with two multigigabit ports, as part of a new line of compact switches. The compact line, which will include several configurations of the 3560-CX and the smaller 2960-CX, is designed for use in spaces such as hotel rooms, cruise ships and retail stores. The switches can run off PoE (power over ethernet) so they don’t need electrical sockets. They can be managed from a central controller system, similar to the way some Wi-Fi access points work.

Cisco customers will pay a relatively small premium for ports equipped with the two new speeds. On a 48-port switch, the extra cost will be less than 20 percent, said Hasan Siraj, senior director of product management in Cisco’s Enterprise Campus Switching group.

As enterprises adopt new Wi-Fi gear, with current standards allowing for 7Gbps and an upcoming version promising 10Gbps, they’ll need to beef up their ethernet ports eventually, Farpoint Group analyst Craig Mathias said.

“One gigabit is really out of gas in the organization today,” Mathias said.

Some IT shops will go straight to 10-Gigabit ethernet and just get the new wiring, because in many cases it’s not that difficult to pull a cable from a switch to an access point, he said. But for those that want to stick with their old cables for now, being able to increase the speed of a switch port over time can save money. “These might be the last switches that many people buy for a decade,” he said.

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