Let’s start with HP. This post will be more about the history of HP Networking and where I see its advantages lie. Even though I will touch upon some of the important technologies HP offers with their switching portfolio, I won’t go into much depth until my next post.
First, a brief history (go to http://www.hp.com/networking for the full story). HP is one of the key founders of modern networking along with companies like Cisco, IBM, Intel and 3com. Despite this, for a long time they were more focused on technologies than products.
As we moved into the 2000s, the networking world was somewhat static. 3Com – arguably the biggest player in enterprise Ethernet in the 90s – has pulled out of every market outside of Asia; IBM – the champions of Token Ring – had given up its networking portfolio and Intel had pretty much given up on making switches in favor of just producing NICs (along with CPUs, etc.). This left Cisco as the only big player and they built a dominant position in the business market that rivaled Novell’s position with NOSs in the early 90s.
HP was producing switches in the early 1990s but they weren’t really a core product; they were so low on the totem pole that they actually had to have their own separate R&D location from the rest of the company and reported into the printing group. There were even rumors around 2000 that the division was going to be sold off.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen and HP realised in the early 2000s that the advent of demands for technologies like VoIP, large high-speed wireless deployments and secure, managed networks offered an opportunity to build market share. This was particularly relevant as Cisco has been dominant so long that they weren’t really being pressed to introduce innovations, improvements in technology or reductions in cost to the market. HP jumped in offering all three of these and quickly moved to the #2 position as a network vendor globally; a position they have held since 2003 (and have been #1 in 10GbE networking since 2009).
HP’s earliest successes came in the education space (predominantly secondary schools). Their introduction of what is still the industry’s best switch warranty across their entire range of products coupled with their existing brand recognition (vis-a-vis their File Servers, PCs and Printers) and much lower cost than Cisco made them instantly attractive and they gained market dominance in many countries within this vertical.
Their next three major product leaps greatly related to the demand for VoIP and came out at roughly the same time. The first was the release of their 2600 series switches which provided all the technology necessary to deliver a robust VoIP deployment (i.e. PoE, QoS, VLANs and routing) at less than half the cost of Cisco. The second was the release of the ProVision 4 series ASIC with their 3500 and 5400 series switches which delivered GbE PoE, 10GbE and most of the advanced networking features that larger organisations demanded (such as dynamic routing, advanced security, etc.) with both superior performance and less power consumption than Cisco again at a far lower price. The last was their joint authoring (with Mitel) of the LLDP-MED standard which freed all switch and IP PABX vendors from the need to use Cisco’s proprietary protocols (CDP, CDP2) for the dynamic management of IP handets (a critical need as any engineer in the VoIP industry will attest to).
These technologies, coupled with the the reliability and price of their product led HP to build strong market share in many verticals but they still lacked a product set necessary to push into many large Enterprises. These clients demanded more complex technologies from their switches (even if they rarely if ever employed them); technologies like BGP4 routing; the ability to establish GRE tunnels and policy-based routing amongst others. HP’s focus had been on delivering fundamental networking services that the entire market required rather than on more complex services that tended to only be in use within data centers or large campuses.
In the late 2000s, Cisco introduced their UCS series of File Servers which signified another major industry change. Up to this time, Cisco hadn’t really paid much attention to HP as a networking player as their #2 status still put them a great distance away from #1 (market share charts at the time needed two scales for Networking vendors: 1 for Cisco and one for everyone else as otherwise they would not fit together!). Up until that point, Cisco and HP were strong partners in the DC space with Cisco switches being embedded in HP Modular Server arrays for both Ethernet and Storage networking. Cisco’s release of Enterprise-grade File Servers targeted directly at the DC was seen as a direct attack against what was one of HPs most important markets.
HP responded by making an aggressive move into the Enterprise networking space: they acquired the market leader of the 90s – 3Com. Throughout the 2000s, 3Com has quietly built up a switching and routing portfolio to nearly rival Cisco’s along with a major Asian market dominance. Further, 3Com’s switches offered all the advanced technologies that HP needed to directly target Cisco’s core customer base and unlike Cisco – who had become complacent in their switching R&D due to their lack of effective competition in their core markets of Europe and North America – 3Com (like HP) had been aggressively developing newer and better technologies to offer their customers.
The 3Com acquisition gave HP not only a network switch portfolio to rival Cisco but arguably switches that are class-for-class better (both in features and performance) than what Cisco has on offer. Cisco’s reliance on their venerable Catalyst class of switches (which were excellent switches but are now very outdated) meant that they had to do the unthinkable and acquire another switching company (Nexus) in order to keep up. Even this acquisition wasn’t a resounding success as the Nexus switches still don’t have the feature set of either HPs or even their own Catalyst switches which is one of the reasons why the uptake of Nexus has been so poor and why Cisco is keeping the Catalyst line alive despite its 15 year old roots. At the same time, HP extended their Lifetime switch warranty to all but the highest-end modular 3Com switches and still maintains a list price-point that can be as much as 50% lower than Cisco.
Some specific advantages that I have encountered in the enterprise space:
The ability to deliver 10GbE campus-grade MPLS/VPLS on sub-$10k switches (immensely important in University or large research center environments. Cisco can only deliver MPLS on their routers (and for 10GbE, BIG routers); C6500 or N7000 chassis at many times the price.
Switches with both deep packet buffers and bi-directional flow-control for iSCSI deployments (Cisco inexplicably removed flow-control when they they went from the 3650 to the 3750).
A Virtual Switch technology (IRF) common to the entire 3Com portfolio which allows up to 9 stackable or 4 modular switches to be fully consolidated into a single array which both allows all networking features to seamlessly span the array (such as link aggregation, routing, ACLs, etc) and can survive an outage of up to (n-(n-1)) switches when a “fat tree” deployment is used for uplink/server connectivity (e.g. in a stack of 8 switches, 7 could fail and connectivity and function would still be maintained even though performance would be degraded).
I’m not writing off Cisco. They still have the best Enterprise routers around, and they are definitely working on improving their switch portfolio but as the market stands right now, anyone weighing up features, reliability and price without paying attention to “brand recognition” would find it very hard to choose Cisco over HP for just about any size switch deployment.