N+I: Dell unveils new, smarter switches

Dell Computer Corp. Monday continued its slow-but-steady march into enterprise networking, unveiling three products that add advanced features for scalability, management and multimedia support.

The company used this week’s Networld+Interop trade show in Las Vegas to unveil a 12-port gigabit Ethernet switch and 24-port and 48-port 10/100Mbps Ethernet switches. Dell already offers products in these configurations but in the newly announced switches is adding features that it says enterprise customers are demanding.

Dell branched out into networking from its core business of PCs and servers in 2001 and has stayed close to the tried and true ever since. It hasn’t yet introduced a Layer 3 routing switch, though an executive said Monday it will do so by the end of this year, nor has it introduced a modular chassis platform of the kind most vendors offer for the core of enterprise networks.

That should come as no surprise, Dell Networking Vice-President and General Manager Kim Goodman said Monday, because the company is just extending its PC and server strategy in the new field. It sells what customers are asking for in large numbers and takes advantage of industry standards and components available in high volume.

The PowerConnect 5212 gigabit Ethernet switch introduced Monday brings advanced features from the PowerConnect 5224 to a switch that is better suited to small and medium-sized enterprises because it has fewer ports, said Ulrich Hansen, senior product manager. Those features include more comprehensive quality of service (QoS) capabilities for applications such as voice over IP (VoIP), user authentication for remote switch management, a command-line management interface for experienced administrators and a redundant external power supply. The 5212 will replace the 5012 model that was introduced in 2001, Hansen said.

The 3348 and 3324 take those features, which also are supported in the currently shipping PowerConnect 3248 10/100Mbps switch, and add two more capabilities. Users can stack the switches using gigabit Ethernet links and manage them – up to 192 ports – as a single switch. In addition, they can set up access control lists to limit certain kinds of traffic.

Meanwhile, as startups and established networking players alike venture into new technologies such as VoIP and centrally managed wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructures, Dell waits for standardization and broad adoption. Although the switches announced Monday can support VoIP by giving priority to voice traffic, Dell has no plans yet to introduce an IP phone line to compete against those from Cisco Systems Inc., Goodman said.

Recent meetings with customers revealed that although most are thinking about VoIP, few have deployed it in live networks, she said. Another piece of the VoIP puzzle, power over Ethernet to run desktop IP phones, is not yet built in to Dell switches. The company is looking to the IEEE 802.3af power over Ethernet standard, which it expects to be approved in the next few months, Hansen said.

Likewise, Dell is waiting for more standardization on centrally managed WLANs that allow users to roam from one access point to another. Its TruMobile WLAN access points can only be managed individually.

Industry standards ensure Dell’s equipment will interoperate with gear from other vendors at a basic level, Goodman said. Likewise, using standard, commonly available silicon components ensures reasonable prices for Dell network gear, she added.

Dell isn’t losing sleep over Cisco’s recent moves toward small- and medium-sized businesses, a strong part of Dell’s customer base, according to Goodman. Dell can offer those customers a single place to get their PCs, servers, storage and networks – and a single place to go for support, she said.