HP Challenges Cisco Catalyst 6500 Upgrade Claims

Hewlett Packard is questioning Cisco's assertion that its upgraded Catalyst 6500 switch provides better investment protection and value than a comparable data networking switch infrastructure from HP.

Cisco on Tuesday announced a long-awaited upgrade to Catalyst 6500, its most popular single product. Among the highlights are Cisco's Supervisor Engine 2T, a 2-terabit card that offers 80 Gbps, per-slot and, according to Cisco, triples the 6500's throughput from 720 Gbps to 2Tbps and quadruples the number of devices that can connect to the network.

According to Cisco, it's a competitive advantage. Whereas an upgrade to Sup 2T on existing Catalyst switches would run customers about $38,000, a forklift upgrade to a comparable HP switch architecture would likely cost that customer more than $100,000 and gives the customer only 720 Gbps of throughput, according to statements Cisco executives made at Cisco Live this week.

That claim is specious, HP said Wednesday. The comparison itself is for an upgrade to a 6500-E platform, said Mike Nielsen, director, solution marketing for HP Networking, and specifically for the Catalyst 6513E, which began shipping last fall, not the entire Catalyst 6500 portfolio.

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Cisco, said Nielsen, should also highlight that to use the virtual switching system (VSS) on the Catalyst 6500, an upgraded line card is required.

"If you've only been shipping a chassis for six months, there's not a lot of investment protection there," Nielsen said. "Couple that with the fact that if you want to do virtualized switching, you have to add the virtual line modules, and it starts being a disingenuous claim that it's not a forklift upgrade, because it is."

The argument that the Catalyst upgrade gives partners the ability to sell more to customers in the a vast Catalyst installed base is valid, Nielsen said -- to a point.

"I don't want to downplay the Catalyst installed base," Nielsen said. "But I don't think it's genuine for Cisco to say they're offering investment protection for that entire customer base when they're really talking about a product that's only been in the market for a few months."

A former HP employee from 1993 to 1997, Nielsen, who held several senior leadership roles at Cisco from 1997 to 2001, and again from 2003 to 2008, rejoined HP in February 2011.

He said the comparison Cisco made at Cisco Live is for the Catalyst 6500 to an HP 9500 switch. A more recently released HP switch line, the A10500 Campus Core line, launched alongside HP's FlexNetwork architecture in May, outperforms the Catalyst 6513E and 6590E switches, he said, by offering 160 Gbps per slot versus 80 Gbps per slot.

HP also offers more simplified management through its Intelligent Management Center (IMC), versus scores of Cisco's management tools like Cisco Prime and Cisco Data Center Manager, Nielsen said.

The competitive posturing is the latest instance of an ongoing war between HP and Cisco for networking and data center mindshare dating back several years.

Next: Market Share Gains

HP recently touted first quarter 2011 networking market share gains against Cisco, citing percentage points gains described by researcher Dell'Oro Group. Dell'Oro analyst Alan Weckel told CRN, however, that networking market share should be evaluated over a three-year period instead of quarter-by-quarter comparisons, and that HP's share claims could be misleading in context.

Rob Soderbery, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Unified Access Business Unit, also told CRN that Cisco has maintained port market share of 50 percent and revenue market share of 70 percent over the past few years, and that Cisco losing market share in the switch category is a "misconception."

But that Cisco is choosing to compare itself to HP at all indicates just how much HP has gotten to Cisco, Nielsen claims.

"The bottom line is that Cisco has never before seen competition like they are seeing from HP," Nielsen said in an e-mail follow-up to CRN. "This is proven by the fact that they presented a comparison side vs. HP switching -- a first!"

"Networking customers finally have a real choice for the first time in decades," he added. "HP brought competition to a stagnant and overpriced market. It's the customers who will benefit most."

A top Cisco solution provider that also sells HP told CRN that "marketing wars" will be a fact of life every time Cisco or HP introduces a new product and makes competitive claims.

"It's easy to find things to market against, on both sides -- they're both huge companies and they're at war," said the partner, who requested anonymity. "A lot of it is noise and a lot of it is probably legitimate claims, and you see that from both of them. What it doesn't do necessarily is help partners tell the right story for customers. We, the partners, have to spend a lot of time filtering what customers have read about the companies, you know?"

HP's aggressiveness will ultimately help Cisco, the partner said.

"Competition in this space is a good thing," he said. "If it motivates Cisco to do better, that's a good thing."

In the meantime, said the partner, the fight continues.

"Ding ding," he said.