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Chipmaker takes aim at Cisco

Sandburst hopes to help out Cisco competitors with a Gigabit Ethernet switch they can incorporate into their own product lines.

Chipmaker Sandburst says it has a solution that will help Ethernet switch makers compete more effectively against networking giant Cisco Systems.

On Monday, Andover, Mass.-based Sandburst announced a line of new Gigabit Ethernet switches called Metrobox. Built through a partnership with Accton Technologies, an Asian contract manufacturer, the switches support features similar to those found in high-end, chassis-based switches. Fixed-configuration switches are generally less expensive than modular switches, and Sandburst claims customers can save as much as 60 percent with its product, citing the list price of comparable chassis-based products from Cisco.

Sandburst, which uses other companies as foundries to build its chips, appears to be the latest in a long line of vendors challenging Cisco in the Ethernet switch market. But Sandburst has a different strategy. It plans to sell the Metrobox to Cisco competitors, who will add software and incorporate the product into their own switching portfolios, said David Larson, the company?s director of marketing.

"Switch companies can spend $20 million to $40 million over 18 months to develop their own chipsets," he said. "Or they can use our chips and reference designs to get to market much quicker and at a much lower cost."

Although it hasn't announced customers yet, companies such as Enterasys, Extreme Networks, Foundry Networks and HP Procurve are likely candidates, Larson said. Enterasys and HP Procurve are already using Sandburst's chips to build their own high-end chassis products.

Cisco competitors are looking for faster and cheaper ways to bring products to market. In the low-end switch market, competitors often buy prebuilt switches from manufacturers like Accton, and then resell them to customers as part of their own portfolios. They also buy chips from companies like Broadcom and Marvell Semiconductor and build the products themselves.

Sandburst is trying to apply the same model to the Gigabit Ethernet switch market.

"It's a classic problem in technology," said Ron Westfall, a principal analyst with Current Analysis. "Once you become an established vendor in a market, how do you address customer needs with developing new technology in a reasonable time frame? That's why many companies look toward off-the-shelf components."

Up until now, none of the chipmakers have addressed the high-end switching market, Westfall added, so Sandburst's Metrobox line fills a void in the market, he said. Small and midsize companies often don't need the modularity of a chassis-based switch, which tends to offer higher performance and more functionality. But as new IP services, such as voice and video, are added to networks, small and midsize companies need the same functionality found in high-end switches.

Larson expects Metrobox to compete directly with Cisco's 7603 Ethernet switch, a three-slot chassis with a switching capacity of 32 gigabits per second. Like the Metrobox, the 7603 is designed for metro aggregation in multiservice protocol label switching (MPLS) networks.

The 7603 and Metrobox support similar features, such as MPLS, virtual private LAN services, Internet Protocol version 6 and access control lists, along with 10-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces. But Metrobox is expected to cost half as much as a comparably configured 7603, which can cost around $100,000, Larson said.

"We think we will change the cost dynamics in the switching market," Larson said. "Cisco sees a need for the functionality and density that we are offering. That's why they have the 7603. But they end up burdening the product with modularity. We take that functionality and reduce it to what is needed for metro aggregation or for small enterprise cores."

The highest functioning stackable switch that Cisco currently offers is the Catalyst 3750, introduced in January. This stackable switch has 32-gbps worth of switching capacity and only supports interfaces up to 1 gbps. Earlier this year, Foundry introduced its FastIron Edge X Series, which provides 10-Gigabit Ethernet switching in a fixed-configuration switch.

Sandburst's Metrobox comes in three configurations: four 10-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces; two 10-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and 20 1-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces; or 40 1-Gigabit Ethernet interfaces.