Extreme has started shipping a new range of switches that it says will encourage network designers to change the way they plan systems.

The voice-class Aspen 8800 family provides wirespeed 10Gig Ethernet for edge aggregation, plus "five-nines" reliability, so a network can be built in just two tiers, the company claims.

The chassis-based Aspen family could also help businesses deploy IP telephony, Gigabit to the desktop and Wi-Fi access points, with high-density 10/100/1000Mbit/s blades and Power over Ethernet (PoE) on each port.

The boxes are part of a new LAN architecture Extreme is pushing, where edge switches link to core switches such as its BlackDiamond models via 10Gig Ethernet. They also provide failover technology to match SONET standards. Extreme says this approach reduces switches on a network by eliminating aggregation layer boxes while making connections faster and easier to manage.

All this is crucial to the issue of convergence, according to Mark Slater, the company's UK technical manager. "With a converged network we're no longer talking about per-hop characteristics, we're talking about end-to-end services. That needs end-to-end intelligence, not putting a dumb box on the edge and relying on the core," he says.

"Stackable switches can't compete with a chassis because they haven't got the resilience. We have hitless failover - the ability for a secondary management card to take over the chassis without interruption. It's unique in the enterprise market." He added that until now, this degree of resilience has only been available in carrier-class products from the likes of Juniper and Cisco.

The Aspen switches come in ten and six-slot configurations. Line cards support up to 48 ports of 10/100/1000Mbit/s Ethernet and PoE. A four-port 10Gig Ethernet blade is also available. Aspen is the second product line to run Extreme's XOS switch operating system - a modular, Unix-based operating system which was introduced on its BlackDiamond 10K switch last year.

The Aspen boxes also support Extreme's Ethernet Automatic Protection Switching (EAPS) protocol, a Layer 2 switching technology developed for metropolitan Ethernet service provider networks which has been submitted for standardisation as RFC 3619. EAPS lets Ethernet switches be configured in a ring, similar to SONET networks, and allows for failover of a link in 50 milliseconds (the same time it takes a SONET network to reconfigure a link).

"EAPS means you can build a network now to protect your infrastructure," says Slater. "If you have a Layer 1 failure, it will converge before your upper protocols realise it's happened, so you've no more problems with spanning tree or RIP. The last thing you want is 40 seconds wait while spanning tree converges and all traffic is stopped."

An early customer for Aspen is US-based Luxottica Retail. The boxes will support PC, IP telephone and wireless endpoints for up to 600 employees, says Stephen Bosch, the company's enterprise architect.

Luxottica plans to install Aspen switches at the edge, with dual-homed Gigabit connections to two BlackDiamond switches in the core. EAPS will create a virtual ring, and 600 Avaya IP phones will run on the flat, Layer 2 LAN segment, with Avaya IP PBXs only two hops away in the core. Other applications will run on the company's Layer 3 LAN segments. "Having all voice on a that flat EAPS network will let us segment and isolate that traffic and ensure it gets the highest QoS," Bosch says.

The Aspen switches support several security and authentication features and standards, including 802.1x and media access control authentication, which lets administrators track what clients, either wired or wireless, can gain access through a switch port. The switches also can apply network policies to multiple devices trying to access the network through one port.

Extreme also says a mix of hardware and software features can let an Aspen 8800 series switch run with only 5.26 minutes of downtime over a year - the vaunted five-nines. The modules include redundant power supplies, fans and dual management/switch fabric modules, which provide instant failover, according to Varun Nagaraj, Extreme's vice president of product management.

The Aspen 8800 will compete with wiring closet chassis switches, such as 3Com's Switch 4007, the HP 5300 series, Cisco's Catalyst 6509, Nortel's Passport 8300 and the Foundry FastIron chassis.

The Aspen 8800 series switches and line cards are available now. The 10-slot Aspen 8810 starts at $7,000 for the chassis, while the six-slot 8806 starts at $3,500. The 10/100/1000Mbit/s PoE ports cost $350 per port, and 10Gig Ethernet ports cost $3,500 each, without optical port modules. Optics range from $4,000 to $10,000 per port.