Swiss Army Knife Of Switches Set To Debut

One of the industry’s well-heeled start-ups will unveil a switch at this week’s NetWorld+Interop 2001 that can replace load-balancing, caching and streaming devices with a single box.

Surgient Networks designed its debut product, the eQuilibrium 2500, to optimize content delivery by directly transferring data from storage to users via separate blades within the switch. Data moves from storage onto the transport blade, and passes into a router via the network blade or directly to a WAN linked to a WAN blade. The eQ2500 also processes the TCP/IP stack in hardware, so a connected server wouldn’t have to process I/O and could run applications unfettered.

The eQ2500 represents a new kind of device, one that merges the storage-area network (SAN) world with content delivery and Web serving. While this is a fresh approach, the start-up is going up against much more established competitors in all of the product areas it touches.

“Surgient has collapsed a whole bunch of independent components that are all interrelated in a network into one performance-oriented box,” says Steve Duplessie, an analyst with Enterprise Storage Group. “That means they can specifically make an application perform a task better – but from a user’s perspective, it makes management of that complex set of distributed elements easier.”

Named one of Network World (U.S.)‘s 10 Start-ups to Watch earlier this year, Surgient is tapping into a rapidly growing market. Research firm IDC predicts that industry revenue from content delivery will increase from US$513.9 million in 2000 to US$4.5 billion in 2004.

While the eQ2500 can be optimized to handle a variety of data – HTTP, network-attached storage (NAS) files, SAN, rich media and cached data – the first application Surgient will support is streaming.

Surgient will rely on partnerships with vendors to provide streaming software that runs on the eQ2500. When Surgient adds caching, rich media and load-balancing applications in the next few months, it also will use software from other companies. Surgient would not disclose which companies it will partner with.

Integration Services Needed

The Surgient device will require integration services to tie the software and hardware together and balance the application for optimal performance. For instance, a streaming application would be given more processing power and less transport and session management capabilities to set up connections, because streaming uses connections that stay up longer than those of other applications.

The eQ2500 most often will fit between a router and Web servers, taking the place of the various caching, load-balancing and acceleration devices, as well as content servers, that would be deployed in a Web infrastructure.

While the new device has functions that overlap with Web switches, Surgient says high-end Web switches could still be used in large data centres, balancing loads among a set of eQ2500s and Web servers.

Storage arrays attach to a 2Gbps Fibre Channel interface on the eQ2500, and networks attach via 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet. Surgient will also support optical carrier links such as SONET for WANs, as well as iSCSI for transport of data over IP networks.

The eQ2500 contains a switch fabric between four application processing blades and three storage, transport and network blades. Applications such as load balancing, caching and streaming run concurrently on the four application blades.

“With the dot-com crash, our industry faces a glut of data centre space, most of which is unused,” says Cliff Luckey, vice-president of engineering and data centre operations at Interland, a Web hosting company in Atlanta that is testing the Surgient box.

“The companies that are going to move forward are the companies that can scale, be extremely efficient and can rent space for the largest amount of hosting revenue per square foot,” he says. “To be laser-focused, we’re looking at the Surgient architecture because it reduces data centre costs and delivers unprecedented levels of performance. The enterprise data centre faces the same problem.”

The eQ2500 ships with Web-based management software loaded on another blade. Code-named eQoS, the software lets IT professionals enforce policies, service-level agreements and per-session usage – functions that formerly would have been handled separately with a different management package for each device.

“In the enterprise, we could charge different departments for a different quality of service or experience,” Luckey says. “We can do that with a single management package instead of the hundreds of different packages that normally ship with caching, streaming or traffic management software.”

EQoS also handles the configuration and personality of the device. Logging and filtering can occur without affecting the performance of the box, and users can configure resource utilization based on applications, traffic volume and prioritization of users.

Surgient competes with BlueArc in the NAS arena, with Network Appliance in caching, and with Digital Fountain in streaming, the company says.

A follow-on product, the eQ4500, will be a larger, chassis-based device for service providers, one that can be expanded with additional blades. Surgient would not comment on its availability.

The eQ2500 is US$90,000; eQoS management software sells separately for US$35,000. Both will be available in the fourth quarter of 2001.

Surgient Networks is at