HP slashes port cost, stays in wiring closet

Hewlett-Packard aims to overtake 3Com with its latest networking blitz, and has its sights set on Cisco in the longer term

Hewlett-Packard has brought the cost of Layer 3 switches down to 125 euros (£76) per 10/100 port, but is staying out of the network core.

The latest network equipment blitz from Hewlett-Packard sees the company promising to overtake 3Com, and displaying blades that have noticeably fewer chips than the competition. Although the new products extend its Procurve wiring closet range higher, the company is still sticking with Foundry for its high-end core switches.

"In some segments, we will give Cisco a run for its money in the next two or three years," said John McHugh, general manager for HP's network infrastructure solutions organisation. "We are the only network company to be continually growing and profitable in the last few years."

HP has moved from No. 11 in the 10/100 Ethernet market in 1998, to No. 3 in 2001, said McHugh. The company also claims to be No. 2 in the Layer 2 Gigabit Ethernet market.

The new switches extend the wiring closet mini-chassis products that HP has been selling since 1998. The 5300 switch will introduce higher layer functions to the wiring closet because it offers "Layer 4 function at a Layer 2 price," said Mark Thompson, worldwide marketing manager for Procurve. The user pays 125 euros per port, no matter how few ports he or she buys, because the chassis is given away free. The product has redundant power supplies, and the blades are hot-swappable.

Further down the range, the company launched a smaller, lower cost version of its 4100 box, intended to compete with stackable switches. The four slot 4104 chassis has a price of 65 euros per 10/100 port.

Inside, the switches are more integrated than previous HP offerings, with programmable ASICs handling network tasks. Each port has an "n-chip" or network processor which handles Layer 3 and quality of service tasks, and the backplane has an "f-chip" or fabric processor -- linked at 9.6 gigabits per second to the n-chips.

The f-chip uses a 266MHz PowerPC chip, while the n-chip has a 66MHz ARM7. "These are low end processors, but they are enough for the distributed address learning task. Each system has eight network processors and a PowerPC."

Despite the increase in performance, HP does not intend to take its switches out of the (wiring) closet, or replace the high-end "core" switches made by Foundry Networks, which it resells. "The relationship with Foundry will continue, and grow in the future," said McHugh. "We do technology sharing, and there will be HP technology in their new products later this year."

Although mentioning storage in passing, HP staff did not announce any new IP/Ethernet storage products. "iSCSI (the IP/Ethernet storage networking protocol) will eclipse Fibre Channel one day," said Paul Congdon, chief architect of HP's Procurve network range, "but for the next five years, most storage solutions will be built around Fibre Channel."

Unusually for an HP launch, there were no questions about the impending merger with Compaq. This is one area where HP products need not fear internal competition when the two companies are shoe-horned into one.

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