Force10 aims to blow Ethernet rivals away

Start-up's new high-end switches promise better port density, a challenge to second-tier sellers--or maybe to Cisco?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Force10 Networks is seeking to leapfrog its Gigabit Ethernet switching competition once again.

On Monday, the start-up introduced a high-end Ethernet switch/router that it claims packs in twice as many gigabit Ethernet ports as its competitors and can deliver total throughput as high as 1.6 terabits.

Force10 said the new TeraScale E-Series devices support 672 Gigabit Ethernet ports and 56 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports in one chassis. All of the ports are able to forward packets at line rate without slowing down when other features are turned on, the company said.

"We are smoking the competition," said Andrew Feldman, vice president of marketing for Force10. "We're years ahead of where everyone else is."

The Ethernet switch maker's closest rivals, Cisco Systems, Foundry Networks and Extreme Networks, have yet to announce products that match the port density promised by the TeraScale E-series.

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Cisco's Catalyst 6500 switch can handle up to 32 ports of 10gbps (gigabit per second) Ethernet and 194 ports of 1gbps Ethernet in a single chassis. Foundry's BigIron MG8 and NetIron 40G each promise up to 32 ports of 10gbps and 320 of 1gpbs. Finally, Extreme can support up to 48 ports of 10gbps and 480 1gbps.

But rival Foundry believes it is still in a good position.

"The question really is, who needs this kind of port density?" said a Foundry representative. "We believe that we will continue to serve a large part of the market."

Representatives from Cisco and Extreme were not available for comment.

This is not the first time that Force10 has surpassed its competition. Back in 2002, the start-up became the first company to introduce a switch that could truly forward packets at 10gbps. Boxes from Cisco, Foundry and Extreme at the time could only forward packets at 8gbps.

The 10-Gigabit Ethernet switching market is still in its infancy. Vendors only sold about $90 million worth of 10GigE gear in 2003, according to a report by the Yankee Group, a research company. Few business applications currently require the full bandwidth provided by 10GigE, but demand is picking up as prices for the switches continue to fall. Higher-density products, such as Force10's TeraScale E-Series, will likely fuel these price declines.

Force10 said it is targeting customers with high-bandwidth demands. The company counts Google, Dell and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' TeraGrid project as top customers. These power users are more likely to need higher-density Gigabit Ethernet switching than the average enterprise customer, said Zeus Kerravala, vice president of enterprise infrastructure for the Yankee Group.

But Kerravala added that the high-density segment is a relatively small piece of the overall switching market. He estimated that out of the $11 billion to $12 billion spent in that market last year, only about $500 million to $600 million was spent on the highest-performance and most densely populated switches.

"There is a very small piece of the market that only buys the highest-performing equipment," he said. "But for most enterprise customers, it's overkill. Force10's advancements won't be enough to send Cisco into a panic."

In fact, Force10 is likely to pose more of a challenge to Foundry than for Cisco, Kerravala said. Like Force10, Foundry initially established itself as the performance vendor. Cisco has typically won switching deals because of its breadth of products and its established reputation. Extreme has long been viewed as the low-cost vendor.

Now that Force10 has emerged on the scene, customers looking for high-performance switching will likely choose among three vendors--Force10, Foundry and Cisco--instead of just two.

"There will always be room for a high-performance vendor," Kerravala said. "But I can't see there being room for more than one or two. Foundry and Force10 will likely be taking business away from each other, while Cisco won't be impacted much at all."

Pricing and product availability can be found on the company's Web site.