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Cisco Systems is updating the Catalyst 6500 Series of switches with new products and new features designed to improve performance in an market that is growing ever more competitive. This update is not just limited to a hardware refresh, but it includes more than 200 software updates.

As the “workhorse family” of switches that stretches across the entire spectrum of enterprises, the Catalyst 6500 is in use by more than 25,000 customers, and one of the most important things Cisco kept in mind in this product refresh was to protect customer investment so they can continue to use the 6500 products they already have without having to do a complete rip-and-replace, said Scott Gainey, director of switching solutions at Cisco.

“We have and always will be strategically invested in this platform,” Gainey said.

A switch series that was first launched in 1999, the Catalyst 6500 has a $42 billion install base, and the latest update to the switch series offers seamless IPv4 and IPv6 support from its platform, new network virtualization capabilities, integrated services from L4-L7, and new application performance and visibility monitoring.

The cornerstone of the updates is the introduction of Supervisor Engine 2T (known to its friends as Sup2T). SupT2 was designed to increase the throughput capability of the switch series from 720Gbps to 2Tbps, a threefold increase in performance over previous versions of Supervisor Engine.

“This platform is screaming fast,” Gainey said.

He noted that this is the biggest platform refresh since Cisco launched the Sup1, Sup2 and Sup720. SupT2 triples the system performance, quadruples the data plane scalability and provides a 4Tb virtual switching system.

“At day one, this product will be 40-gig ready,” Gainey said.

As part of the 6500 refresh, Cisco also announced new 1Gb and 10GbE modules, including the 6900 Series 8-Port 10 Gigabit Ethernet Module (providing 80Gbps of capacity), fiber and copper versions of the 16-Port 10G Module and the 48-Port GbE Module, and a 24-Port GbE Fiber Module. One of the keys to the new modules is distributed forwarding capability, a feature that was historically only available with an add-on daughtercard. By building the capability into the modules, customers will see the overall price drop, Gainey said.

Another key benefit of the modules is that Cisco is building intelligence directly into them, he said.

Additionally, Cisco also announced next-generation borderless services. They include the Next Generation Firewall (ASA-SM), the Application Control Engine (ACE30), the Network Analysis Module (NAM-3) and the Wireless Services Module (WiSM2).

“With this release, we are upgrading four of our existing borderless services modules,” Gainey said.

The biggest change in the borderless services modules is performance enhancements. The ASA-SM is a three times improvement over previous firewalls. The NAM-30 sports a 10 times performance enhancement over the previous version of the module. The WiSM2 provides 802.11n performance and scalability while also provide the ability to centrally manage up to 500 access points and 10,000 clients from the module.

To get all of the more than 200 new/enhanced features available on the 6500, all a business has to do is upgrade the supervisor engine, Gainey explained. The price tag associated with that is $38,000. In comparison to HP, Gainey said HP’s solution is almost three times the price and has a third of the performance.

“We are literally squeezing the competition here. We’re beating them on price. We’re beating them on performance,” Gainey said.

The migration path is fairly simple and seamless, said Kumar Srikantan, vice president of marketing for Cisco’s Scalable Networks Business Unit (SNBU). There are both technology and economic factors that come into play in migrating to the latest technology in the 6500 Series, he said.

From a technology perspective, the large installed base meant Cisco had to make sure all the old technology continued to work.

“Now it’s never perfect, but you can make the new technology integrate and work with the old linecards, and you can basically preserve 65 to 70 percent of the old investment,” Srikantan said.

All of the 6500 technology that businesses have invested in since 1999 will continue to work.

Economically, Cisco offers discounts when customers trade in old technology, so they can still get some value out of their old 6500 linecards if they choose to upgrade.

“I think that’s worked very well for us. Some customers take advantage of it and some don’t,” Srikantan said.

For partners, the opportunity revolves around capitalizing on the existing installed base by offering customers increased performance at a reasonable price, as well as by maximizing profitability in doing network assessments and providing lifecycle management services, said Wenceslao Lada, vice president of borderless networks in the worldwide partner organization at Cisco Systems.

“With the introduction of this platform, we have brought a very high level competitive platform into the marketplace,” Lada said.

Even though the performance and scalability is shooting skywards, partners are able to use the resources and skills they’ve already invested in – and in many cases, have been using for the last decade. Partners already trained and certified on the 6500 don’t require any additional education to sell the upgraded technology, which Lada said is something unique to Cisco in this space.

“It’s even very important for the partner. To bring this platform to the market, the partner doesn’t need to go through any technology training or certification or change the way in how they’ve been constructing the designs of the network,” Lada said.