Dense and highly-reliable Gigabit and 10 Gig chassis, plus cheaper ASICs, could let us knock a whole layer of complexity out of our networks. That's the claim of Marc Randall, the president and CEO of Silicon Valley start-up Force10 Networks.

"Force10 was founded to be a high-performance Ethernet company, with its flagship technology being 10 Gigabit," he says. "We built a resilient switching router to go after high performance applications like metro Ethernet and data centres."

He argues that in the past, routing was a performance problem, so the mantra was 'Switch where you can, route where you must,' but that new software and ASIC technology has removed those performance barriers and made routing much more feasible.

"The only difference is the cost of integration," he adds. "Integrated routing software is not a challenge if you design the box that way. The problem is when you design a switch and then add routing. If you want to route you have to look deeper into the packet.

"For example the Cisco 6500 was really designed and tuned as a switch. You can add a routing card to it but it does not perform well and it's two operating systems so it's not a clean solution. Ours does whatever you turn on."

And he acknowledges that there will always be cases where switching alone is the right answer. "Towards the edge you will still see the switch as the base platform - it's a cost issue and you don't need routing towards the edge."

The push to 10 Gig
What's fuelling much of this is the march towards 10 Gigabit Ethernet and beyond. Randall predicts that 2004 and 2005 will see the second phase of 10 Gig pricing, as vendors re-engineer their products to take cost out of the linecards and decrease the price per port still further.

"First there is a component of price reduction from volume - in 2003, it was $15,000 just to buy a laser because there was no volume," he explains. "Then the systems companies re-engineer their products, and after that component companies like Marvell and Intel find ways to reduce the price of their 10 Gigabit PHYs [physical layers]."

Not surprisingly, he claims Force10 was the first to market with 10 Gig and is therefore also the furthest down the path of reducing system cost.

As with previous generations of Ethernet, what's pushing 10 Gig is the aggregation effect: servers and even desktop and laptop PCs now come with Gigabit Ethernet as standard, so you need an even faster backbone. Randall says that growing sales of blade and rack-mount servers, and their growing demands, are why companies such as IBM and Dell distribute and support Force10 hardware.

Clusters and broadband
"As you introduce Gigabit it really starts to push 10 Gig," he says. "For enterprises, the market dynamics driving 10 Gigabit demand are the rise of clustering and changes in server architecture, and for service providers it's broadband adoption by consumers - that get you into the aggregation effect again."

And given that Force10's flagship E1200 switch/router can aggregate 336 Gig ports into 28 10 Gig ports, and has a 1.6Tbps backplane, he says that a consequence of this extreme data density is the need for extreme reliability and resilience.

"The combination of switching and routing allows customers to eliminate a layer from the network. Our boxes have more ports so you can build a network with fewer elements, but of course that means the boxes cannot go down.

"The number one contributor to outages today is software, so the way you harden your software is you build modular software, not monolithic, and second, you build it to contain faults within the module. The third thing is even with a failure, you keep forwarding packets through the box."