Regardless of whether an organization's campus network is large or small, it has an edge. These are the LAN switches that enable wired desktops and Wi-Fi access points to connect to other networks.
Here we examine leading switch vendors with offerings that provide Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) edge ports and Power over Ethernet (PoE). Choice is good, but having too many options can be overwhelming. To help you sort through the hundreds of available switch models, we focus on key decisions that can help you create a shortlist. Some factors to consider include the following:
Density and PoE. Most vendors offer switches with at least 48 ports. Locations that fit comfortably within that limit will have a variety of choices. Organizations that need more ports will want to make sure the vendor supports stacking. This allows multiple switches to be connected via 10 GbE, 20 GbE or higher, so the switches perform and can be managed as a single switch.
Most vendors will offer switches with and without PoE ports, whereas some switch vendors only offer PoE on a subset of ports. That's fine for many deployments, but not if, for example, the organization wants to connect VoIP phones to every port. Also, if the organization wants to connect IoT devices like pan-tilt-zoom cameras to its switches, get switches that support more comprehensive levels of PoE, such as PoE+ or Four-Pair PoE.
Wi-Fi 6. If the organization supports, or plans to support, Wi-Fi 6 access points (APs) that can push over a gigabit of data, consider switches that support multi-gigabit 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE copper, PoE connections.
Always-on devices. For devices such as surveillance video cameras, ask specifically if the vendor provides perpetual PoE. This feature enables the switch to continue providing power to ports when rebooting. This will help to ensure the organization's IoT devices don't go offline during a reboot, although they will need some way of buffering data, as they can't transmit while the switch is rebooting.
At least half of the vendors profiled here have product portfolios based, in part, on gear obtained through the acquisition of other suppliers. Companies like Enterasys Networks, Foundry Networks, Brocade Communications Systems, Nortel Networks Corp., 3Com Corp. and others no longer exist, but their switch portfolios do. Take this into account when evaluating a switch portfolio that's very large, as some of the equipment that's offered for sale may be considered nonstrategic and on its way to extinction.
If your organization is going to make a large purchase, get a nondisclosure agreement in place with the vendor and ask it to reveal its plans to ensure your organization's money is well spent and isn't going to buy soon-to-be-extinct inventory.
Because our focus is on the edge, there are some vendors that won't be covered here. For example, Mellanox Technologies is focused on aggregation and the data center and doesn't offer switch products for the campus edge. Although Arista Networks announced a move into the enterprise, its switches are almost all focused on aggregation and core. Ruckus Networks offers only a core switch.
ALE International offers the OmniSwitch brand of switches. At the low end, the switch vendor offers a single family of Gigabit Ethernet-only switches -- without 10 GbE uplinks or multi-gigabit support for Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 APs. Models are equipped with 8, 24 or 48 ports, with and without basic PoE and basic web management.
At the midrange, ALE offers five families of switches. Models are configured with 10, 24 and 48 ports, and while most of the switches provide only Gigabit Ethernet as primary port connectivity, multi-gigabit port switches are also available.
At the high end, models are equipped with 10 GbE and 20 GbE uplink support and stacking. All but the low-end switches are managed by ALE's proprietary management system.
Allied Telesis Inc. focuses on devices that connect high-density IoT devices, such as cameras.
At the low end, the Allied Telesis SMB products provide many switch options. There are 11 different product series, consisting of the Allied Telesis CentreCOM, FS series and GS series. All are fixed-port platforms. At the low end, the Fast Ethernet switches are managed and unmanaged Gigabit Ethernet switches that offer up to 48 ports for a single switch with the option for PoE.
Allied Telesis also offers 11 product families aimed at enterprise campus deployments. These are comprised primarily of the various x series of switches, including the x200, x550 and x8100 models. There are nine families of fixed-port switches focused on edge connectivity. The IX5-28GPX switch, which is marketed as a video surveillance PoE switch and offers PoE+ on every port, is of interest. While the switches are mostly fixed-port platforms, Allied Telesis sells two SwitchBlade chassis-based offerings, but they're more focused on aggregation -- 10 GbE, 40 GbE or 100 GbE -- switching.
Aruba-branded products include not only gear the vendor sold prior to its 2015 acquisition by Hewlett Packard Enterprise, but switches HPE manufactured itself as well as devices formerly sold by 3Com, which HPE bought in 2010.
Fortunately, there shouldn't be any interoperability issues if your organization mixes and matches gear from those previously separate product lines. This interoperability, though, doesn't necessarily extend to management systems, which tend to be proprietary. So, be aware of how each switch is managed. Switches native to the Aruba product line can be managed via the cloud-based Aruba Central. Older 3Com and some HPE switches may not. So, do your homework.
At the entry level, Aruba targets the HPE OfficeConnect -- originally 3Com -- collection of switches at small and growing businesses. These range from small, unmanaged Layer 2 switches to 48-port Gigabit Ethernet stackable switches with PoE+ and 10 GbE uplinks. There are seven different series. Since that's a conglomeration of existing Aruba, HPE and 3Com low-end product lines, there's a significant amount of overlap.
Aruba also has an abundance of offerings, as 3Com and HPE had large portfolios before adding Aruba. There are high-density edge options available either through stacking single-slot models or using the 5400R series. Because of the importance of WLAN to Aruba, it's no surprise there are several models that offer 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE multi-gigabit ports designed to handle the wired uplink from Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 access points that can deliver more than 1 GbE of traffic.
Aruba's Intelligent Edge Switch portfolio consists of nine different product series, only two of which -- the 5400 and 8400 series -- are modular- or chassis-based. As noted, there's substantial overlap here. The original Aruba switches, such as the 2930 and 2940 series, will have more of the wireless-focused features, such as multi-gigabit and advanced Dynamic Segmentation, that provide for consistent policy enforcement across wired and WLAN networks.
The 2530 and 2540 series provide Layer 2 connectivity with the latter offering 10 GbE uplinks. The 2930 and 3810 series provide Layer 3 functionality with the 2930 series focused on edge with PoE and the 3810 series focused on aggregation.
Cisco divides its product line into two categories -- data center switches and enterprise switches. Within the enterprise, it markets both fixed and modular switches. Here we will examine only the fixed switches. Much of the company's focus is on IoT, cloud and software-defined features. Switches are generally heavily standards based, but come with some proprietary features as well, such as Cisco's Universal PoE, which offers up to 60 Watts (W) per port.
Cisco offers seven different product families within the Catalyst line of devices, as well as the Cisco Meraki line of access switches. The Catalyst 2000, 3000, 9200 and 9300 lines all have models ideal for edge switching. The 2XXX and 3XXX lines have been around a long time and provide all-important edge features, including PoE, virtual LANs, uplinks and stacking, depending on the specific model.
The new star of the campus would seem to be the Catalyst 9300. It provides all the various PoE options, including Cisco Universal PoE, 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE link support, stacking, 25 GbE and 40 GbE uplinks and high-density PoE. Note, however, that some models are engineered with specific capabilities, such as multi-gigabit, so you'll need to comb through the various models to get the right combination of switch features for your deployment.
Dell EMC has provided basic, fixed-port switches since the 1990s. Eight years ago, Dell expanded its reach into high-end networking with the acquisition of Force10 Networks. Those product lines have since been integrated into the PowerSwitch line. Additionally, Dell EMC offers several open networking switches that can run non-Dell network operating systems.
At the low end, the X-Series is comprised of four X1000 models and the X4012. These are basic switches offering from eight to 48 ports, but no PoE capability or 10 GbE uplinks.
The N-Series provides both features. There are five different families within this series: N11xx, N15xx, N2000, N3000 and N4000. At the low end, they are Layer 2, moving through basic Layer 3 functions to full Layer 3. PoE and uplink options are available. Moving up the product line, there are additional PoE power options, redundant power supplies and 40 GbE uplinks. The N2000 and N3000 families offer 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE multi-gigabit links, which are essential in supporting Wi-Fi 6 APs.
Extreme Networks has put together an extensive switching portfolio over the past several years, encompassing a variety of gear from its Avaya, Enterasys and Zebra acquisitions.
The vendor's primary edge switching platform is the X465 Premium Smart OmniEdge family of fixed port switches. In addition to 24- and 48-port GbE modules, the portfolio includes 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE multi-gigabit support, high-power PoE and the ability to stack up to eight X465 switches.
Extreme has at least 18 different product families, so it's important to carefully evaluate how a particular line of edge switches will meet your organization's needs.
Editor's note: Using extensive research into the campus edge switch market, TechTarget editors focused this article series on leading providers that offer enterprise-class switching gear -- supporting such functions as multi-rate gigabit throughput, advanced PoE and automated provisioning and configuration -- used to connect corporate networks to third-party networks. Our research included data from TechTarget surveys and reports from other well-respected research firms, including Gartner.
Juniper offers an extensive portfolio of enterprise switches, with the EX2300-C line being the most basic. The series, in which C stands for compact, offers a 12-port switch that supports based Layer 2 functions as well as PoE+.
The EX2200 series -- low end at Juniper, but considered midrange by other vendors -- are 48-port GbE devices, with Layer 2 through Layer 3 functionality and PoE+.
These switches also support Juniper's Virtual Chassis, which enables combining, or stacking, multiple physical switches so they function as a single switch.
Similar to other vendors, Juniper offers multi-gigabit switches. The EX2300 provides up to 48 ports of 1 GbE, 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE. Ten Gigabit Ethernet uplinks provide aggregation bandwidth, moving up into the core of the network. For organizations with higher power and uplink bandwidth needs, the EX4300 multi-gigabit switch provides up to 95 W per port and uplink options that include 4x10, 2x40 or 1x100 GbE.
The EX3400 and 4200 are at the higher end of the campus fixed port line, offering Layer 2 through 3 functionality, various PoE options, high density and stacking of up to 10 units, which provides considerable capability and flexibility.
With its acquisition of IBM's x86 server business, Lenovo obtained a high-performance switching line and a blade switching line, which came from IBM's acquisition of Nortel. These campus switches aren't chassis blades but are stand-alone, fixed-port switches. The new Lenovo CE Series contains four switches. They are 24- or 48-port -- with or without PoE -- all with 10 GbE uplinks and Layer 2 through Layer 3 capabilities.
A follow-up article will profile the software and hardware vendors that specialize in open networking.