HP ProCurve has announced its Open Network Ecosystem, an alliance programme intended to get third-party network applications running on its switches.

The company has developed an application blade for its 5400zl and 8200zl chassis switches, and has already signed up Microsoft, Avaya, McAfee, F5 Networks, Riverbed and several others to port software onto it.

ProCurve is also pushing harder into the enterprise data centre with the announcement of a top-of-rack server edge switch family, the ProCurve 6600, plus software that enables admins to automate the provisioning of network resources The application blade, called the ProCurve ONE Services zl Module, is in effect a complete Intel-based server, with its own RAM and hard disk, and two 10Gig Ethernet connections to the backplane.

Lyn Nease, the company's director of emerging technology, said that the blades could replace some of the separate servers needed in branch offices.

For now, each blade can only run a single application, unlike systems such as Cisco's ISR which can run multiple virtualised applications. Nease said that ProCurve will add similar functionality in the future, but argued that applications such as firewalling, IP telephony and WAN optimisation currently need a processor to themselves. "A lot more work is needed for applications to be hosted on a hypervisor," he said.

"The I/O overhead of VMware is pretty high." He added that if multiple applications are needed, each chassis switch can host two blades. The new 6600 switches are intended for mounting in server racks - they are 1U high and are designed for front-to-back cooling.

Four of the five models initially announced are Gigabit switches with 10Gig uplinks, while the top of the line 6600-24XG is a 24-port 10Gig switch for high-performance server interconnects.

Nease said that, in order to get such high port density at 10Gig, ProCurve has adopted SFP+ Direct Attach technology. This uses twin-axial copper cabling which has similar capabilities to 10GBase-CX4, but is thinner, has more reliable connectors and is much easier to work with.

He said that, along with the auto-provisioning software, called Data Centre Connection Manager (DCM), the new switches are part of HP's plan for ProCurve to work more closely with its service and consultancy arm. DCM - which runs on a separate controller or a Service Module - will be especially useful in adaptive and virtualised data centres, he claimed.

"It virtualises the entire subnet in the data centre and makes it look like a giant switch," he said.

"The network team can then pre-provision connections before a new server even shows up, setting up a pool for the server team to draw upon." Nease added that the software developers signed up to work with the application blade are already HP partners, so this will give HP's services group additional reach.

Alan Baratz, senior VP and president for global communications solutions at Avaya, agreed, saying it would make it easier for his customers to deploy unified communications.

He cited Broward County Public Schools in Florida, which is in the process of converting the first 55 of 250 schools to Avaya Communication Manager IP telephony software and HP ProCurve switches.

"From the start, we saw clear evidence of the commitment between HP and Avaya to do things right," said Doug Pearce, district network coordinator for Broward County Public Schools. "We're confident that HP and Avaya will take us in the direction we want to go with a highly reliable solution, cost-effective pricing and the functionality we need."

The 6600 switches are priced from $4,699 to $17,999 (£3,335 to £12,775) and will be available in the first half of this year. The DCM software lists for $27,100 (£19,230) and the DCM controller is $32,000 (£22,700). Both will be available in the second quarter. The Services zl Module costs $5,995 (£4250) and will be available in February.