Easy to manage, Cisco stackable switches can pile up the savings

Easy to manage, Cisco stackable switches can pile up the savings

By Michael Cheek and John Breeden II

GCN Staff

Fast-growing networks have made stackable switches a necessity, and now Cisco Systems Inc. has come up with an inexpensive way to stack them.

The company's Catalyst 3500XL family of 10/100-Mbps switches can use Cisco's own copper gigabit interface converter (GBIC) between 12- or 24-port units at about half the price of industry-standard fiber converters.

Cisco's GigaStack GBIC handled small packets faster and large packets slower than an industry-standard fiber GBIC.

In GCN Lab tests, Cisco's GigaStack copper GBIC consistently handled slightly more common network traffic than an industry-standard 1000Base-SX optical-fiber GBIC, which the Catalyst switches also support. A 1000Base-SX connector transmits short-wave laser pulses over multimode optical fiber.

On a highly congested network, a few more packets got through Cisco's proprietary GigaStack GBIC. We found only a 1 percent difference between the two GBICs. But consider this: That 1 percent translates to about 70,000 64-byte packets over 60 seconds when the stack's link pushes data at 100 percent capacity; those packets would otherwise be lost.

The lab used the SmartBits 2000 communications tester from Netcom Systems Inc. of Calabasas, Calif., to measure performance of the Cisco switches. SmartBits 2000 calculates throughput, latency and packet loss of the Layer 2 switches at multiple stress levels on a virtual network.

Box Score''''''''''''''

Catalyst 3500XL with GigaStack
12- or 24-port 10/100-Mbps stackable switch with gigabit interface converters

Cisco Systems Inc.; San Jose, Calif.;

tel. 800-553-6387


Price: Catalyst 3524XL $3,995 and Catalyst 3512 $2,995, both less $250 rebate; GigaStack GBIC with half-meter cable $250

+ GigaStack's cheaper than fiber GBIC and performs slightly better

+ Easy stack manageability via single-IP-address Web console

+ Excellent standalone performance

Cisco provided GCN with 12- and 24-port models of the Catalyst 3500XL, as well as GigaStack and fiber links. We tested different configurations and found all performed at expected capacities.

Catalyst 3500XL switches have two slots that can accommodate GigaStack or fiber GBIC modules. Up to eight Catalyst 3500XL switches can be linked via GigaStack.

The switches automatically detect one another, simplifying network expansion no matter which GBIC type you choose. This made testing easy, and it would be a distinct advantage for administrators who need to add network switch capacity quickly.

The switch is on

The switches were bundled with Web tools for managing a stack. We had to use Cisco's powerful but complex character-based interface only once to set an IP address on one switch. Then, with a Web browser, we connected to that switch and could manage all other Catalyst 3500XL switches in the stack. Up to eight of the switches are manageable via a single IP address.

Each GigaStack module is priced at $250, with a half-meter-long cable. That means it would cost $500 to connect two Catalyst switches. Fiber GBICs typically cost about $500 each, and the fiber cabling is sold separately.

GigaStack cables, however, are limited to 1-meter lengths, a disadvantage compared with higher grades of fiber, which can extend more than 100 kilometers. In a network that stretches across town or even bridges two floors, fiber would be the better medium.

How the GCN Lab tested

' The lab used a SmartBits 2000 test unit to measure the Layer 2 communications performance of Cisco Catalyst switches.

' All switches and SmartBits unit ports were set to 100 Mbps and full duplex.

' The lab configured SmartBits 2000's Version 6.60 firmware with 24 ML-7710 cards, which use RJ-45 plugs. Standard 2-foot Category 5 cable connected the SmartBits unit to the switches.

' Netcom Systems' SmartApplications 2.22 software controlled the SmartBits 2000 unit during the tests.

' The test covered seven Ethernet User Datagram Protocol packet sizes: 64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 1,280 and 1,518 bytes. The UDP packet type is specified by the Network Working Group's Request for Comments 1242, the standards document for measuring performance of Ethernet and Fast Ethernet devices.

' All tests ran for 60 seconds in three configurations: standalone, 10-to-10 port and 12-to-12 port.

' The standalone configuration examined the performance of the 24-port Catalyst 3524XL switch.

' The 10-to-10 tests used the same Catalyst 3524 plus the 12-port Catalyst 3512XL. Using either GigaStack or fiber GBICs, the lab sent signals from the 3524 to the 3512. Only 10 ports were in use because the theoretical limit of the 100-Mbps ports would fill the gigabit bandwidth to 100 percent.

' The 12-to-12 configuration was similar, except that the lab staff deliberately overloaded the GBICs with two additional 100-Mbps data streams.

We ran tests at 100 percent capacity, sending signals from 10 Fast Ethernet ports on a Catalyst 3524XL to 10 Fast Ethernet ports on a Catalyst 3212XL. The GigaStack link reached 99 percent throughput for 64-byte packets; the fiber GBIC achieved 98 percent.

A 64-byte packet is the smallest possible packet under Ethernet and Fast Ethernet standards, and a 1,518-byte packet is the largest. The lab tested seven sizes; both GBICs sent 100 percent of packets larger than 64 bytes.

Smaller packets tend to tax a network more than larger ones. Because they are more numerous, they can overburden internal buffers.

When we hammered the gigabit links by overloading at 120 percent of capacity, both GBICs let 80 percent of the packets through. The tests indicated about 16.7 percent of all packets were lost, no matter what size.

In testing latency, we noticed slight performance differences between the GigaStack and the fiber GBIC. Latency measures how long a switch takes to send a packet. Even a switch with 100 percent throughput can slow down overall network performance if high latency causes it to take too long to route packets.

At packet sizes from 64 bytes to 256 bytes, the GigaStack was slightly slower than fiber. Between 512 bytes and 1,518 bytes, it performed slightly faster. Neither GBIC excelled overall at low latency.

The Catalyst 3524XL in a standalone configuration doing store-and-forward transmission had overall latency of about 11 microseconds for all packet sizes. Under ideal conditions, the minimum latency would be 11 microseconds. We found both switches' overall latency acceptable.

Switches send packets by one of two methods: store-and-forward or cut-through. The store-and-forward method, which Cisco's switches use, waits until an entire packet has been received before it sends anything on.

Cisco's eight-port GigaStack switch can interconnect eight Catalyst 3500XLs using Cisco GBICs. The Catalyst 3508XL has the advantage of a 5-Gbps connection rather than 1-Gbps in a point-to-point configuration.

In standalone tests of the Catalyst 3524XL, we slammed all 24 ports with traffic and found 100 percent throughput without packet loss.

The Catalyst switches are strong performers and easy to manage. The low cost of the GigaStack modules makes Cisco's stackable switches good for rapid on-site expandability requiring little human intervention.


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