The vast majority of network administrators have their preferred networking vendor. Whether it’s Cisco, Juniper, or HP, you’ll often hear the same old chestnuts come down from the server room. Very often, the search for a good switch is drowned out by two sides – those who insist you have to pay dearly for quality, and those who insist a switch is a switch, and the 48-port gigabit offering from anywhere is going to suit you just fine.
In today’s IT world, the answer matters quite a bit. There is a very understandable need, especially in the recent years, of saving on the IT budget. Since the economic downturn, companies have been looking to squeeze any savings they can from a budget, and switches seem to be a very easy savings. After all, a managed 48-port gigabit switch from Cisco, the C5010, can run you around ten thousand dollars; the same offering touted by Dell, their Powerconnect 6248? Two thousand. That’s a huge difference in price for an L3 switch, and very tempting to any IT department looking to shave a few dollars off its budget. On the surface, especially for a small-to-medium sized business, it seems like almost a no-brainer to go with the cheaper Powerconnect.
The resolution? In my opinion: go with the brand name switch.
There will be, of course, the arguments from the other side: “one managed switch is just as good as the other.” “Switches are dumb, you just need something that can carry packets.” “You’re crazy, the Dell switch has QoS, CLI, STP, and every other feature the Cisco has!” and other such arguments. All of which, on the surface, have merit. How can you justify the price difference for two switches when they seem to have the same feature-set?
Not Just a Fancy Logo
As it turns out, quite a few ways. When it comes to switches, you’re not paying just for the fancy Cisco logo on the front (well, maybe a little). You’re paying for extraordinarily well-tested hardware that’s gone through rigorous quality control; that NEBS designation on the higher-end switches isn’t just for show. NEBS compliance requires testing for things like operational temperature, acoustics, vibrations, peak load, and any number of other environmental stresses that a switch might see in the wild. As such, the higher-end switches that have gone through such quality control can withstand more punishment and higher load averages than those that were pushed out the door without any such testing.
Does this mean that all of the non-NEBS switches are worthless? Not remotely; they are, however, more prone to failure, especially at high operating temperatures and especially when those high operating temperatures are caused by higher loads. The Web is rife with stories of Dell and Netgear switches petering out during periods of peak loads, and I myself have had both a Netgear and a Dell switch start to fail mysteriously as soon as the operating temperature in the rack climbed because of higher traffic on the LAN.
It’s important to note here that this doesn’t mean all Dell and Netgear switches will fail at high temperatures; just that they do not have the stringent testing background that NEBS and other compliance standards give to the more pricey switches. That said, however, these sorts of cheaper switches are perfectly suited for a small or medium-sized business that isn’t VOIPing or otherwise pushing tons of data around; the occasional Internet use or download by a couple dozen employees along with a server or two is probably going to be well within the ability of a cheaper switch, and the gigabit ports, for the savings, is likely to be welcomed by any IT admin on a budget.
You Get What You Paid For
If you’re a larger office, running VOIP phones, or performing other similar data-heavy operation (large databases, SPLUNK, etc.) you may want to seriously consider shelling out for that higher-end switch; what you spend in initial cost will be more than paid back for in less downtime, maintenance, and repair (not to mention overtime hours), especially in those critical moments when one of your HVAC units fails or a rack isn’t cooling properly. The difference between a day of lost productivity and a smoothly-running network might be the difference between a NEBS-compliant switch and one that’s not, and it’s the duty of any good network administrator to decide what his network needs in terms of operational capacity and budget accordingly.
In the end, then, it turns out that the brand-name switch hawkers are (at least partly) right: a higher-end switch will save you some heartbreak in the long run, not because of the price tag but because of the superior quality control and compliance. This isn’t to say, however, that a pricy switch is always the right choice for every situation, and a small office with a small amount of data getting tossed around may benefit more from buying a cheaper switch that suits their needs and putting that much more back in their coffers!