Is a little more clarity in sight for HP ProCurve's switch line-up? A few years ago, the company bought technology from Riverstone Networks to produce a fast core switch, the ProCurve 8100 series. It also signed up to re-label Foundry's BigIron intelligent chassis switches as the ProCurve 9300 series.

Now it's come out with the first member of a new 8200 family, the 8212zl - a chassis switch targeted at the core. So, we asked ProCurve's CTO Paul Congdon, does this mean the end of the line for the 8100 and the 9300? And what of its focus on wireless, and its deliberate avoidance of the service provider market?

Congdon was very careful to avoid using the word 'replacement'. He conceded though that yes, the 8200 is a successor to the 8100, and is based on that same Riverstone-derived technology.

"The 8200 offers higher capacity and more scale than the 8100," he said. "It's filling gaps and opening markets, more than renewal."

And while the 8200 is denser than the 9300, the latter still has features that the new switch lacks, says ProCurve - such as multi-protocol support, BGP and other things aimed more at the telco market.

There's something about Cisco

So ProCurve's aim with the 8212zl is very clear - it wants to step up its pursuit of Cisco in the enterprise LAN. It already claims the status of number two supplier here - albeit a distant second - thanks in part to its keen pricing and the lifetime warranties it offers.

Some observers have criticised the company, for example saying its switches aren't as well featured or documented as Cisco's, but Congdon said that its switches matched up where it counted.

"The 8212 has very similar performance to the Catalyst 6509," he claimed. "What you don't have is all the same modules, the service provider things, and the complexity. But on pure performance, it's spot on.

"It also offers a unique high-availability wiring closet option, for example for VOIP - it's unique because of the full Power-over-Ethernet on 288 ports."

The absence of service provider features is deliberate - when HP bought the rights to develop Riverstone's technology for the enterprise, the SP rights stayed with Riverstone, which was bought out of bankruptcy by Lucent in 2006.

Congdon said that's how things are likely to stay, for now at least.

"Service providers do represent a market segment, but having the right product is only part of the recipe for success - you also need a direct sales force, a broad portfolio in other carrier technologies such as WAN and SDH, billing and accounting capabilities, and so on," he explained.

"We tune our things to people who own and manage their own networks. Enterprise IT shops are tending to act more like SPs though, so the technologies are converging. I could imagine seeing more carrier capabilities appearing in this switch, but I don't want to compromise its cost and simplicity. But you could see Metro Ethernet, say, and counters for accounting."

Chassis vs stackable

Given that the new box has a passive backplane, how does it hint at the directions ProCurve will take with its switches in the future? For instance, the 9U chassis of the 8212zl has 12 of its 17 slots open for line cards or wireless switch modules - but that's the same number as the 7U-high ProCurve 5412zl, which doesn't need management modules taking up slots as it has an active backplane. Could the 8200 go bigger or smaller?

"The architecture is very scalable," says Congdon. "I wouldn't imagine we will scale it up, but we could scale it down."

He notes that the big advantage of the passive backplane is that you don't need to replace the whole chassis to get more performance out of it. Instead, you could slot in faster management modules and even clock the backplane at a higher rate in the future.

"The signals on the backplane are isolated and done in a way that they can be upgraded," he adds. "I personally believe a chassis is a better solution from the perspective of performance and manageability, but we offer both so the user can choose."

And last, but not least, what about wireless? ProCurve's switches can accept a wireless edge services module (WESM) which is the latest iteration of its plan to put access control on every port, whether wired or wireless.

"Our WLAN module is wireless switch technology that works with thin APs," Congdon says. "The technology has advanced though, for example it now has guest services built in, so you connect guests onto a separate virtual LAN via a secure guest portal.

"It means you have consistent management of ports, users and policies, regardless of how you connect."

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