Cisco aims to simplify switch management

Cisco is upgrading software on its Catalyst 6500 switches so individual processes on the devices run separately, allowing customers to reboot processes without taking the entire switch offline.

The company said this shift to discrete modular processes makes for simpler software upgrades to subsystems of the switch that support processes such as TCP, User Datagram Protocol (UDP), routing and FTP.

The new software architecture is also designed to cut the time it takes to check software upgrades such as patches or new features, Cisco says. Because such upgrades can be accomplished via alterations to individual processes rather than to the entire image of Cisco’s IOS software, customers need to do less testing to determine if upgraded processes will disrupt other functions, Cisco says.

The company said upgrades can be done to the routing module, for instance, while the switch is in use without dropping a packet.

With the Catalyst 6500 software upgrade comes automation of routine maintenance tasks, as well as better diagnostics and resolution of network problems in conjunction with another new software feature called Embedded Event Manager (EEM).

Because EEM detects more details about the switches’ subsystems than SNMP does, it can automatically respond to more minor problems based on policies set by customers. So if a given process eats up more CPU capacity than the policy allows, for example, EEM can trigger an automated response. EEM can take any action that can be initiated via Cisco’s standard command line interface.

Running processes independently on switches is common in carrier-grade gear, but is not so widespread in business-class network equipment, said Mark Fabbi, a vice-president at Gartner. He said that Juniper has been the notable exception, as the JunOS software in its enterprise switches hails from the company’s carrier-grade switches and routers.

Cisco’s software upgrade is a big change, Fabbi said. “Before this, IOS was monolithic,” he said.

“If you want to patch one tiny thing, it’s an IOS upgrade.”

The upgraded offering could have an impact on network security as well, Fabbi added. Customers might be more likely to install Cisco patches sooner because it should be easier to do and the patches won’t have the potential broad impact on other subsystems. “People are reluctant to dabble with IOS as a whole,” Fabbi said.

The new software features for Catalyst 6500 switches are scheduled to be available in the fourth quarter for switches using Cisco’s Supervisor Engine 720 and in the first quarter of next year for switches using Supervisor Engine 32. There is no extra fee for customers with a SMARTnet maintenance contract.

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