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New Cisco Switch Automatically Adjusts To Applications

Lets network administrators give priority to voice over IP, video, and other traffic types.

Cisco Systems has long promoted a centralized approach to network management, yet certain kinds of data traffic increasingly bypass the data center where control is exercised. The infrastructure vendor is introducing switch technology that deals with that by adjusting to applications where they travel--at the network's edge.

Cisco's new Supervisor Engine 32 with Programmable Intelligent Services Accelerator brings hardware-level packet inspection to the company's Catalyst 6500 Series switches. The Supervisor Engine 32 with PISA analyzes applications as they travel across a network, so a switch can distinguish an ERP application from, say, voice-over-IP traffic, and prioritize according to policies set by network managers. Standard switches don't have the built-in intelligence to tell whether a Skype call or an instant message is zapping through them.

Cisco already has something comparable in its Network-Based Application Recognition software, but it's a "time-constraining and resource-constraining way of doing things," says Kumar Srikantan, director of Cisco's Internet Systems business unit. By incorporating application analysis within the hardware, Cisco says customers can set traffic priorities more easily without compromising network performance or consuming a lot of power.

Enterprise Switch Market ShareThe Supervisor Engine 32 with PISA is priced at $28,000 and will become available for Cisco's Catalyst 6500 Series switches in June.

As more companies adopt VoIP, videoconferencing, and telepresence--technology that creates the appearance of people being in the same room when they're not--they need a way of managing applications as close as possible to the end user. Such applications don't simply flow from the user to the data center, says Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. "It's user to user and machine to machine in some cases," he says.

The shift also requires more proactive security. "To prevent worms and viruses from affecting peer-to-peer apps, you need to change the network," says Cisco's Srikantan. The Supervisor Engine 32 with PISA uses Flexible Packet Matching technology to inspect voice and data packets, which prevents worms and viruses from spreading to a data center, if an application passes through one, by detecting malware at the point of entry to the network.

To help customers rearchitect their networks for peer-to-peer applications, Cisco also has created a network services "blueprint" (a combination of documentation and design guides) called the Campus Communication Fabric.


Pharmaceutical company PDL BioPharma is evaluating Cisco's new switch for possible use at its new headquarters, comprised of two five-story buildings in Fremont, Calif. The company plans to deploy VoIP and desktop videoconferencing, so having a switch that recognizes and secures peer-to-peer traffic will be necessary. "It's a relief to know that we wouldn't have to deploy separate appliances or worry about performance," says Luis Chanu, the company's global network and security architect, who hopes to offer data transfer rates of up to a gigabit to employee PCs.

Cisco isn't the first to offer an intelligent switch. Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve Networking business sells application-aware network switches and software that manage traffic flow as part of HP's Adaptive Networks strategy.

For the past year, Cisco has been busy promoting its unified communications system and Web collaboration products, and in March it revealed plans to buy Web conferencing company WebEx for $3.2 billion. Its application-aware switch shows that Cisco remembers where its bread gets buttered. Says Kerravala, "It's been a long time coming."

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