Adding switchports doesn't suck anymore!

Date September 28, 2012

Working in a college is such a different environment from what I was used to. Some examples:

We don't have "on call". Seriously. The most critical core router on my section of the network can go down at 3am, and I won't find out about it until the morning when I wake up.

When I suggested that, you know, maybe we might want to know about it at 3am, the question that I got back was, "Who is it going to affect?". Well..umm….uh, our college's external website will be down, but other than that…I can't think of much.

The fact that business isn't being conducted 24/7 and that I'm no longer dealing with untold amounts of financial data from companies around the world means that certain things are more relaxed. And I like it.

Another example, one morning last week, I took the early train and added a new blade to one of our switches. I originally asked if I should come in at midnight to do it, but the answer was the same, "if you do it when you get in before everyone else, then no one will notice if the entire switch reboots". Well, um, yeah, I guess you're right. This is going to get some taking used to.

And while I'm on the subject of switches, can I just mention that it's really nice going to a chassis switch? Until now, all of my switches have looked a lot like these:

They were decent switches (well, ok, those switches in the picture weren't decent, but there are decent rack mount switches), and relatively inexpensive. But when you ran out of ports, you had a problem…namely that you needed another switch. When you went to buy another, you had to make a choice of whether to get another of the same size and use it in addition to the one you already have, or whether you should get a bigger one and replace the original entirely.

The biggest issue with adding a switch was that co-location rack space was tight, and large chunks of computers had to be moved to make way for a new switch. Blargh. I've hated it each and every time i've had to add a new switch into a production rack.

But there is another way, particularly if you've got a lot of switch ports lit. It's called a chassis switch. I knew about them before, but it just wasn't cost effective for me to buy one. Here, though…I've got over a thousand lit switch ports, and I currently administer 5 chassis switches. And they're beautiful. Cisco has a lot of promotional material devoted to why they're so great, but the bottom line is that you add more switch ports and you don't cry about it. Plus, you get to manage a single device rather than a ton of individual switches.

Interestingly, the idea of chassis switches does scale down. You can get a 3-bay 6503-E for under a couple grand. That usually includes the "supervisor module", which functions as the brain of the switch. It does not include any switch ports. Those are extra.

When you look at the economics on it, the price of a 48 port gigabit switch module isn't really much different than a 48 port rack mount switch. In essence, you're paying for the chassis, and the chassis is paying for itself in terms of convenience. As the chassis gets bigger, the benefits increase (and in my opinion, they increase faster than the costs).

Oh, and just so you know, you can work with any good reseller to get refurbished models for a LOT cheaper than the prices listed up there. I've worked with both Network Hardware Resellers and World Data Products, but there are tons of other refurb dealers out there.

Anyway, I'm very happy that I get to administer chassis switches. I'll have to be doing some re-working of the "core" infrastructure in the coming year, and I'll make sure to post a nice entry about that and what my plans are.

As a note, Cisco certainly doesn't have a monopoly on this stuff. Juniper, Brocade, and heck, even Netgear(!) all have chassis switch lines.

  • Steve

    Academia and government are the two most relaxed environments I've worked in. Bonus points if you didn't need to take a pay cut.

  • http://www.standalone-sysadmin.com Matt Simmons

    Steve: I was actually having a lot of fun working at Tech Field Day, but I missed implementing technology, as opposed to hearing about it. So it was what I'd consider a parallel move. Besides, I have figured out that I'm not exactly motivated by money. It was a good lesson to learn.

  • http://www.chriscowley.me.uk Chris Cowley

    HP also make excellent chassis switches as part of the procurve range.

    If you are not worried about 10Gb and jumbo frames you can pick up a fully loaded 5308 (128 ports) for just over a grand (in the UK) re-furbished. No need to worry about maintenance either as they came with a lifetime transferable waranty.

  • http://betteradmin.com Brian

    I think what you're really enjoying is the lack of space constraints. It's just as easy to leave space open in a rack for future expansion, as long as you can afford it. There's no reason you need to pack everything in as close as possible, then move stuff later. Management is a different issue, and I'm sure that's much better though.

  • http://www.magda.ca/ David Magda

    Agree with Chris.

    If you're looking for switching equipment, you may always want to check out HP. At $WORK we're moving over to them for a lot of stuff because they work quite well, and they're pretty decent value for what you get and what you pay for.

    We recently switched over our HPC cluster to a pair of 10500-series switches. One lives with the cluster (compute and storage) in one server room, and the second lives in another room to talk with the rest of the network. The two show up as one virtual switch so things like spanning tree and routing is made a lot easier. Up to four chassis can be linked together. The "HPC switch" replaced to HP 8500-series that we're going to repurpose (one replacing an old Cisco 4500).

  • http://blog.lastinfirstout.net/ Michael Janke

    Most of our smaller colleges are pretty relaxed about off hours outages and change windows. The big ones are not. It's hard to assert that an outage costs the college money, as it would on an e-commerce site. Students don't transfer to a new college when you have an outage.

    But my experience at the scale of hundreds of thousands of students is that they expect 24x7, and although failures don't have a directly quantifiable cost, they still cause a significant disruption to the students and faculty. You'll still be meeting with student governance groups, faculty technology committees and other affected parties, explaining what happened and how it's not going to happen again.

  • http://www.adamcodega.com/ Adam Codega

    Switch chassis aren't just for switches anymore. My HP chassis also holds my Wi-Fi controller.

  • Flemming Jacobsen

    Pardon the ignorance, but isn't a chassis switch just one big rack-unit with a few switched tugged in along with a few extra bits. Or is it one manageable unit as opposed to x number of switches times x number of ports per switch?