Dell's networking division is eyeing the cores of data centres and small and medium-sized enterprise LANs with a pair of Ethernet switches that also act as routers.

The PC and server giant entered the LAN equipment business in 2001 at the edge of the network, where PCs plug in to desktop switches with relatively simple Layer 2 capability. Now it wants to supply the bigger Layer 3 hardware that links multiple parts of a company's network and route traffic among them, according to Ulrich Hansen, senior manager for product marketing in Dell's networking business.

To compete against more established players, such as Cisco Systems, Dell said it was building in dependability features that typically are found in larger, chassis-based switches while keeping the price highly competitive.

The PowerConnect 6024 and 6024F switches, each of which has 24 ports capable of Gigabit Ethernet speed, will cost US$3,499 when they go on sale to US customers in early February, Dell said.

Transceivers for fibre-based ports will cost extra: $169 each for 1000-SX (for multimode fibre, to cover distances up to 550 metres) and $349 each for 1000Base-LX (for single-mode fibre, to go as far as 10 kilometres). That pricing comes out to about $146 per port, not including the fibre transceivers. The average price per port in the Layer 3 Gigabit Ethernet switch market -- which includes a wide variety of products -- was $271 in the third quarter of 2003, according to Seamus Crehan, an analyst at Dell'Oro Group.

Each model is equipped with both copper and fibre ports: The 6024 has 24 10/100/1000 Mbit/s copper Ethernet ports and eight SFP (Small Form-Factor Pluggable) fibre interface slots, and the 6024F has 24 Gigabit Ethernet SFP slots and eight of the copper ports. On each model, only 24 ports can be used at a time, so for each of the eight extra ports that is activated, one of the regular ports is deactivated, Hansen said.

More vendors are rolling out "dual-personality" products like these because they are easier to buy, said Mark Fabbi, an analyst with Gartner. Customers don't want to have to worry about exactly how they will be using the box when they order it, he said.

Dell has moved slowly but surely up the hierarchy of networking, Fabbi said. "To their credit, they realised there was a level of service and expertise that they had to develop before they jumped up to that level," Fabbi said.

Along with HP and some Asian vendors, Dell is putting downward price pressure on the industry that even extends to mighty Cisco when deals are hammered out, he said. "When you force Cisco to compete, they are much more aggressive than they ever have been in the past," he said.