Network Blockbuster: Aruba Takes On Cisco With New 'Catalyst Killer' Core Switch

Aruba Networks is bringing its mobile cloud-first software directly into the heart of corporate networks with its first ever core switch aimed squarely at displacing Cisco's popular Catalyst line of network switches.

Partners are calling the new offering -- the Aruba 8400 Core Switch Series powered by the new ArubaOS-CX operating system -- a "Catalyst killer" that for the first time brings modern dynamic software capabilities to the enterprise network. They say the new switch provides a legitimate challenger to Cisco at the network core, bringing automation and software intelligence to customers anxious for an alternative to the more than 20-year-old Cisco Catalyst franchise.

"We now can sell across the architecture and our customers won't have to rely on Cisco for what used to be a core part of their networking strategy," said Keerti Melkote, senior vice president, general manager and co-founder of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, in an interview with CRN. "They can go end-to-end with HPE-[Aruba] with a mobile-first approach."

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Melkote -- the technology visionary behind Aruba's mobile cloud first software offensive -- said the mobile cloud-first approach pioneered by Aruba completely transforms the corporate network.

"The core needs to be a lot more valuable to the changes that are actually happening which means it needs to be driven by new tools that allow it to be automated, to allow it to provide a lot more intelligence. It needs to be a part of an architecture as opposed to a standalone environment. The entire network value proposition has changed," said Melkote. "We are going to enable better security, better automation and better analytics as a result of this new architecture."

The new Aruba 8400 Core Switch Series, debuting Monday at the 2017 HPE Discover Conference in in Las Vegas, is purpose-built for the changing traffic patterns created by mobile and cloud business applications, delivering a "breakthrough" in campus networking that extends Aruba's intelligence from the edge to the core, said Christian Gilby, director of product marketing for Aruba.

"We see it primarily going after the [Cisco] Catalyst 6000. Most of the customers are using that for their core," said Gilby. "In terms of the switch fabric, the 8400 is 19.2 Tbps. That's a closer match to the [Cisco] Nexus [switch series'] level of performance … With this new switch, we're really focusing on boosting beyond what the Catalyst 6000 has."

The Aruba 8400 delivers 1.2 Tbps per line card, which is approximately eight times the performance of the Cisco Catalyst line card, according to Gilby.

One top executive from a solution provider who partners with both Cisco and Aruba called new solution a Cisco "Catalyst killer."

"That's the target because a lot of that Catalyst equipment needs to be retired. Customers are evaluating a new platform, so they may as well take a look at Aruba," said the executive, who asked not to be identified. "A lot of them are really basically tired of SmartNet. It's quite a hefty premium."

A typical Cisco Smart Net services contact can cost between 10 percent to 30 percent of the total price of the product, according to partners.

"Sophisticated customers aren't necessarily value SmartNet as much as they once did. If they can find a just-as-good or better alternative that doesn't carry that burden, they're going to take a look at it. ... This may be that answer," he said.

The Aruba core network charge comes as HPE is successfully gaining share at the intelligent edge versus Cisco.

Aruba's wireless business was up 32 percent in the second quarter, ended April 30. HPE said Aruba, which had 100 "new logo" customer wins in the quarter, is on track to take more than two points of worldwide market share. What's more, HPE said campus and branch switching sales grew at a mid-single digit rate in the most recent quarter. Even HPE's data center networking business was up in the most recent quarter.

As Aruba positions the new 8400 against Cisco, a critical element is Aruba's new operating system, the ArubaOS-CX, aimed at simplifying and automating many critical and complex network tasks.

"The OS side is the big differentiator here. When we designed this switch, the focus was API first. Everything available in the switch is all available through APIs both to our own software components for management security, but also third-party systems. We're built from the ground up so that it complies in APIs for all of the interfaces on the switch," said Gilby. "That is something that nobody is doing in the campus core of the network today."

The new switches – which are available immediately to partners in Aruba's Partner Ready for Networking Program, are priced comparably to the Cisco Catalyst, but the ArubaOS-CX dynamic software feature set is the real "game-changer" as it dramatically reduces administrative time with a mobile-first approach, said Gilby.

The 8400 – priced at $95,995 for a starter bundle for 10G connectivity and 40G uplinks -- is fully programmable with a built-in Python interpreter and REST-based APIs for every function. The product line enables easy integration and ongoing flexibility with infrastructure and applications, including the Aruba Mobile First Platform, for end-to-end network monitoring, detection, troubleshooting, and closed-loop remediation of network performance or security-related issues, Aruba executives said.

Many businesses currently have two-decade-old networking infrastructure, meaning IT administrators not only have to troubleshoot problems after the fact, but also remediate issues using traditional tools such as CLI and SNMP which can be time-consuming and expensive, Aruba said. the new Aruba 8400 switch supports policy-based integration with network monitoring, performance and security management tools, which can result in faster problem resolution, according to Aruba.

"It's going to be huge savings in terms of troubleshooting," said Gilby. "The other big one is just in terms of deploying the network, configuring it. This is really going to slash the time to do that,"

The switches also contain the Aruba Network Analytics Engine, which gives IT administrators the ability to monitor the network, systems, applications and security-related issues with rules-based monitoring and automatic correlation of network activities.

James Aldridge, vice president of technology at Matrix Integration, a Jasper, Ind.-based Aruba and Cisco partner, said the Arbua 8400 and ArubaOS-CX are going to "shake things up" in the networking industry.

"What I like about the 8400 is that, in true Aruba fashion, they're bringing out the visibility, the insights and the quick remediation. They've been doing it at the intelligent edge, and now with the new 8400 core and aggregation switch, they're really going to bring it all the way to the core, which is where they've never been before," said Aldridge.

"The OS itself is extremely innovative. The analytics engine and the database associated with it is really going to drive a lot more insights and remediation for troubleshooting," he said. "It's a little bit of a game-changer."

The Aruba 8400's fully extensible fabric design enables seamless upgrades so enterprises can scale as their bandwidth needs increase, according to Aruba. Utilizing HPE's Virtual Switching Framework (VSF) with two chassis, the platform scales up to 512 10-GbE, 128 40-GbE, or 96 100-GbE ports.

"We haven't seen a great way to do seamless upgrades and redundancy in the core layer in the past, and now with the 8400 you are going to be able to do that," said Aldridge.

The solution provider executive who declined to be named said it has been a "hard fought battle" for Aruba competing against Cisco over the years, but the 8400 switch may turn the tides in Aruba's favor.

"Cisco is almost a religion in the network," said the solution provider executive. "There has to be a compelling reason why the customer wants to move away or deviate from Cisco because you get so many internal factions that are defending Cisco because it's almost like part of their identity … But Aruba is making waves in the market, that's for sure."

Faisal Bhutto, vice president of enterprise networking, cloud and cybersecurity for Computex Technology Solution, a Houston-based solution provider and Aruba partner, said the innovation engine is in "full steam ahead" mode at Aruba.

"It's heartening to see even after the acquisition from HP that they've continued to innovate and spend their dollars on the research and development front to launch new solutions," said Bhutto. "They have a good solution portfolio when it comes to the wireless connectivity, and by layering more intelligence on those edges to enable IoT applications is really a standout. ... Bringing that to the core is a good move."