Cisco has upgraded two of its higher-end Catalyst switching lines to improve their ability to support real-time enterprise communication and collaboration.

The enhancements include virtual switching for the Cisco Catalyst 6500 and essentially a refresh of the Catalyst 4500 line. The upgrades are intended to usher those two lines, which are long-in-the-tooth yet highly profitable for Cisco, into the world of collaboration and unified communications, applications that require higher network performance and limited downtime.

"Both of these products were developed pre-Y2K," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at the Yankee Group. "Foundry's probably had four or five product releases in that time. So you could argue that the products' are not nearly as state-of-the-art as some of the other ones."

The Catayst 6500 Virtual Switching System (VSS) 1440 is enabled by the new Virtual Switching Supervisor Engine 720 with integrated 10Gbps Ethernet uplinks. This capability effectively allows users to combine multiple Catalyst 6500 switches into one, thereby pooling switch bandwidth to increase performance.

"They are abstracting the physical number of devices from the logical management of those devices, which allows an enterprise to operationally streamline the management of Catalyst devices," says Rob Whiteley, senior analyst of enterprise networking at Forrester Research. "This is critical in the datacentre, where switch proliferation is very difficult to manage."

The VSS 1440, which had been expected for two years, scales system bandwidth capacity to as much as 1.44Tbit/s, Cisco says. It is also designed to simplify operational management by enabling multiple Catalyst 6500 switches to share a single-point of management, single routing instance and single IP address, while eliminating the dependence on Spanning Tree and "first-hop" redundancy protocols, such as Virtual Router Redundancy Protocol.

VSS 1440 also extends the life of the Catalyst 6500 line by increasing scalability by a factor of 2 or 4, and offering higher availability, Cisco says. Cisco VSS 1440 delivers subsecond Layer 2 link recovery through interchassis stateful failovers and multichassis Etherchannel technology, the company says.

VSS 1440 is based on 11 new patented hardware and software concepts, according to Cisco.

Cisco has also integrated automatic service monitoring and alert capabilities into the Catalyst 6500 switch. Called SMART Call Home Services, the switches perform monitoring and troubleshooting, issue alerts and automatically generate a service request that includes associated diagnostics.

Meanwhile the Catalyst 4500 enhancements include a next-generation architecture embodied in four new chassis. The upgraded line, called the 4500 E-Series, features 320Gbit/s of switching capacity and a fourfold increase in per slot bandwidth through a centralised switching architecture Cisco calls CenterFlex.

In addition to 320Gbit/s, CenterFlex technology delivers 250Mbit/s of centralised forwarding performance for services that enable unified communications. CenterFlex resulted in the filing of 19 new technology patents enhancing security, QoS and performance, Cisco says.

CenterFlex is embodied in the Catalyst 4500 E-Series' Supervisor6-E switching module. The E-series includes three 10G Ethernet and 10/100/1000Mbit/s Power over Ethernet (PoE) line cards which quadruple bandwidth per slot, Cisco says.

Customers can use existing Catalyst 4500 line cards with the new Supervisor 6-E switching module and new E-Series line cards with existing Catalyst 4500 supervisor modules.

The Catalyst 6500 VSS engines are priced from $31,500 to $38,000 and are available. The Catalyst 4500 E-Series Supervisor 6-E with CenterFlex costs $19,995, and will be available later this month.