The Enterprise 10/100BT Switching Face-Off

Switching devices from three enterprise networking vendors, Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Intel Corp., and Cisco Systems Inc., were put through the paces to evaluate their ease of management and overall network performance. 3Com Corp. (www.3com.com) was invited to submit a switch, but the company was unable to deliver a unit in time for our review deadline.

We deployed each of the three switches in our lab environment, which consists of 11 client machines -- a mix of Windows 3.11, Windows NT 4.0, Windows 2000 Professional, and Debian Linux systems -- and two Windows 2000 Servers. We standardized on network interface cards (NICs) from 3Com internally, and we used an amalgam of 3C905B-TX, 3C905C-TX, 3C980B-TX, and 3CR990-TX NICs. Each of the three switches was initially configured with an RFC-standard internal IP address, and auto-sensing was disabled on each switch’s complement of ports. All ports were mapped to a corresponding NIC MAC address.

HP ProCurve 2424M

The HP ProCurve 2424M is stacked with features and functionality. Superficially, it’s a 24-port switch with 10/100 auto-sensing on a per-port basis -- standard. But the 2424M features extensive port monitoring capabilities, all accessible and manageable through its intuitive and surprisingly powerful Web-based administrative interface, Layer 3 protocol traffic filtering, VLAN support and VLAN tagging, which supports multiple VLANs over the same physical link.

The 2424M also supports switch stacking, which lets network administrators outfit up to seven 2424Ms with HP’s (www.hp.com) optional Gigabit Stacking Module and stack his or her 2424Ms to increase performance and manageability. Moreover, the 2424M lets administrators trunk ports together for better performance and redundancy. It can also be configured to tag network traffic and prioritize the traffic on a per-node basis, according to predefined critical services and applications.

The 2424M had the most full-featured, Web-based administrative interface of the three switches tested. We were able to perform almost any conceivable management chore -- monitor port traffic, configure ports, prioritize port traffic, truncate ports, and define VLANs -- tasks that might otherwise be performed by virtue of a Telnet or serial console connection. HP’s console command shell proved to be an intuitive and powerful management environment. For administrators who want the power of a full-featured command shell environment but who might be put off by the complexity of Cisco’s renowned Internetwork Operating System (IOS), the HP ProCurve 2424M could be a nice alternative.

Performancewise, the 2424M tested at least as well as our two other switching devices. Using the Qcheck network performance throughput testing tool from Ganymede Software Inc. (www.ganymede.com), we were able to consistently record better than 80 Mbps throughput between our 11 clients.

Intel Express 460T

The Express 460T is a sleek, 24-port 10/100BT switch that Intel (www.inttel.com ) positions for midsized workgroups or for office environments that are making the transition from 10 MB Ethernet to 100 MB Fast Ethernet. To that end, Express 460T is the only nonstackable unit among the three switches reviewed. That said, we found that the 460T’s sleek look and Intel’s modest market positioning belie the reality of a highly manageable, high-performance switching device that is a perfect solution to quickly add extra ports to any network environment.

When we first obtained the Express 460T test unit, it hadn’t yet been updated with a firmware revision that supports VLANs. It took a few weeks, but Intel provided an update. From that point on, and for our purposes at least, the nonstackable 460T behaved exactly as did its stackable brethren. Like ProCurve 2424M and Catalyst 2924XL, Express 460T provides a migration path to Gigabit Ethernet -- a single expansion slot situated on the unit’s rear panel that can accept either a Gigabit Ethernet backbone module or an optional 100Base-FX module. Also like ProCurve 2424M and Catalyst 2924XL, Express 460T lets network administrators aggregate ports to increase bandwidth between network devices. Unlike its stackable brethren, which require some degree of administration before deployment, Express 460T is a true plug-and-play network solution.

Managing the 460T can be accomplished through the traditional Telnet or serial console session environments, by means of the unit’s embedded Web server platform, or by virtue of Intel’s DeviceView software for Windows 9x and Windows NT systems. We found an essential reduplication of features in all of the Express 460T’s management interfaces, and were able to perform the same management functions -- configure individual ports, configure individual port security, prioritize port traffic, configure VLANs -- even when moving from one interface to the next. The Express 460T’s console command environment was the most straightforward of the three tested switches.

The performance of Express 460T was very good, consistently exceeding our 80 MBps standard for acceptable network performance with all 11 of our clients in use.

Cisco Catalyst 2924XL

The Cisco Catalyst 2924XL is the most inauspicious looking of the three switches reviewed, presenting the box-like lines and pale blue color that are the hallmark of Cisco’s design approach.

Like the other switches reviewed, Cisco Catalyst 2924XL features 24 auto-sensing 10/100 Mbps ports. The 2924XL we tested was also outfitted with the Enterprise Edition of Cisco’s Internetwork Operating System (IOS), a powerful and comprehensive embedded operating environment available for network devices. Cisco’s IOS Enterprise Edition features 8 MB of Flash ROM and a 4-MB shared-memory architecture.

Like HP’s ProCurve 2424M, Catalyst 2924XL supports port trunking -- which Cisco terms bandwidth aggregation -- and can offer up to 800 Mbps of truncated bandwidth that can be shared among switches, routers, or servers. Catalyst 2924XL also supports VLANs, up to 250 of them -- overkill for a 24-port switching device. Catalyst 2924XL provides what we found to be the most straightforward environment -- a simple point-and-click Web browser interface -- for configuring and managing VLAN support.

The product’s most powerful attribute is Cisco’s IOS Enterprise Edition operating system, which from a management point of view provides some unique features. Using IOS Enterprise Edition’s network address translation feature, for example, network administrators can cluster up to 16 Catalyst 2924XL switches together and manage them as a single logical unit with a single IP address. Since we were only testing one switch, we didn’t get to take advantage of this.

Catalyst 2924XL can be managed via Telnet or a serial connection, Cisco’s IOS command line, or a Web browser interface. As far as administration is concerned, Catalyst 2924XL’s Web-based management support consists of a default page with links to at-a-glance information about it, as well as a link that invokes Cisco’s Visual Switch Manager. Using Visual Switch Manager, we were able to accomplish a number of management tasks, such as configuring and managing ports, configuring security, and adding VLANs. Administrators comfortable with the IOS command line will discover a wealth of additional manageability features.

The Cisco Catalyst 2924XL performed about as well as the other two switching devices tested, consistently supporting greater than 80 Mbps throughput between our 11 client devices using Ganymede’s Qcheck tool.

Overall

The three switches we test drove offer a nice stratification of features and performance with plenty of overlap. All are in the same price range -- between $1,100 and $1,400 -- and all offer the same basic feature sets.

Its standalone status will probably preclude its deployment in many large sites, but Express 460T seems to be the best overall solution for small office, workgroup-level, or remote office implementations. True to Intel’s billing, it’s well-suited to environments in the process of transitioning from 10 Mb Ethernet to 100 Mb Fast Ethernet, offering the performance amenities of stackable switches, link aggregation, and optional Gigabit Ethernet support without the need for extensive configuration.

With an average retail price of $1,200, we think the HP ProCurve 2424M offers the best overall value proposition among the profiled switches. HP’s 24-port switch offers most of the performance advantages that you would find in the more expensive Catalyst 2924XL -- with more sophisticated IP traffic prioritization support, to boot -- at about $200 less on average. Next to the piece-of-cake management interface presented by the Express 460T, the ProCurve 2424M struck the best overall balance between features and ease-of-administration. Because of its price/performance and relative ease of management, we believe the ProCurve 2424M is a great solution for almost any environment, as either a standalone switch or in managed, stackable configurations.

The Cisco Catalyst 2924XL is the most rugged performer of the three. It's also the most expensive, with an average retail price of $1,399. But the Catalyst 2924’s extensive support for up to 250 VLANs, its ability to tag multiple VLANs to the same port, its stackability, and the power of Cisco’s industry-renowned IOS make it a strong choice for most environments, and a compelling choice for large environments.