The goal of an enterprise network is to be invisible, to reliably move data fast and free of obstructions to sustain applications, processes, and end users. At its core is the familiar ethernet switch.
In the market of fully managed ethernet switches for enterprise networks, Cisco is the longtime leader, while NETGEAR was founded in 1996 to disrupt the small and home office market. We'll examine both to see whose switches might work best for your network.
There is an ethernet switch for every application, from small offices to networks that bring together thousands of endpoints across great distances. In an enterprise network environment, speed, capacity, control and flexibility are critical considerations.
- Speed: An ethernet switch must be at least as fast as the fastest speed used on any given network. Enterprise-level switches are available up to 100 GPS speeds.
- Capacity: Switches are available with more than 50 ports and are often stackable so they can be managed as a single unit instead of individually configured.
- Control: Fully managed switches allow administrators to control the flow of data and add a layer of security since they provide full control over network access and performance.
- PoE: Switches featuring PoE (power over ethernet) provide power to IoT devices. PoE switches generally carry a cost premium but they allow for tremendous flexibility.
Cisco and NETGEAR produce a wide range of switches with Layer 2 and Layer 3 features for the enterprise network market. These switches provide the highest availability, port density, and security, and they are priced at the high end of the spectrum. Of course, Cisco and NETGEAR switches operate according to specification when deployed in networks with hardware from multiple manufacturers, but in a fully managed environment, the benefits of brand homogeneity are substantial. Setup, configuration, and maintenance are all easier when dealing with a single platform, which means greater reliability, fewer conflicts, and increased efficiency in managing an enterprise network.
At a high level, both companies have long histories in the network business. Cisco’s focus has been on the business market since its inception. The company was established in 1984 and today provides a comprehensive array of products for every facet of a network. Cisco products and support are ranked at the highest levels and IT professionals generally recommend the company’s products without any hesitation other than the price of entry. A survey of recommendation sites, including Gartner and Trust Radius, confirms customer satisfaction as Cisco switches are consistently given 4.5 to 5 stars on a 5-star scale. NETGEAR switches score closer to 4 stars on the same scale, however, on the key measures of price and ease of setup and configuration, users give NETGEAR a slight edge. With significantly lower price points and products that are easy to set up and configure, the company is particularly strong in the space slightly down-market from Cisco’s sweet spot. NETGEAR and Cisco switches will both get the job done so the decision comes down to the scale of your needs.
NETGEAR M4XXX Fully Managed Switches
NETGEAR’s M4XXX family resides at the top end of NETGEAR’s fully managed switch catalog. It includes the M4100, M4200, M4250, M4300 and M4500. Each model offers enterprise-level features at speeds up to 100G. M series switches are stackable with other M switches as well as NETGEAR S3300 switches to provide an easy scale path. Port density ranges from 6-100+ and the switches are available in full rack, half-rack, and desktop boxes. Key features of the M4 family include:
- High availability
- Zero-downtime stacking
- L2 and L3 functionality
- AV-over-IP ready
- Command line interface (CLI) and web-based remote management (GUI)
- Up to 100G speed
- PoE with budget options
- IGMP & Multicast
- Advanced security (ACLs, Auto Denial of Service, LACP)
- Energy efficiency
- 24/7 support
- Lifetime warranty
NETGEAR offers custom configurations and quotes on its website and all of its enterprise-level switches are widely available online. Popular sites list the 12-port M4100 as low as $219 with no additional fees or subscriptions. On the other end of the spectrum is the 32-port M4500 which comes in at $14,999.
Cisco Catalyst 9000 Series
The Catalyst 9000 series combines all of the expected features of a top-of-the-line wired enterprise network switch with wireless networking functionality. This wired and wireless capability differentiates the 9000 series from NETGEAR’s M4XXX line at a core function level and extends the security, reliability, and controls of traditional switches into the realm of wireless. Rather than managing wired and wireless networks separately, the Catalyst 9000 series enables a unified strategy with one operating system to manage an entire network. The series includes several different product lines (9100, 9200, 9300, 9400, 9500, 9600 and 9800) but in all cases, features of the 9000 family include:
- Always-on/high availability/zero downtime
- Layer 2 and Layer 3 functionality
- Up to 100G
- PoE with budgeting
- Multicast and AV bridging
- Industry-leading security
- Highly flexible with open APIs
- Cisco DNA software subscription options for simplified management and maintenance
Cisco switches are available through Cisco Partners, directly through Cisco Commerce and online with somewhat limited availability. The 24-port 9200 can be found online for $1,050; the 48-port 9500 is available for $22,750. In addition to hardware costs, expect to pay annual subscription fees for software and support.
Cisco NETGEAR Hone in on Strengths
Cisco’s quality, support and flexibility are unrivaled but NETGEAR provides excellent alternatives at attractive price points for enterprise network applications. The unified wired + wireless features of the Cisco 9000 series are highly regarded and in the context of equipment, management and resource cost, deliver excellent ROI. NETGEAR switches are easily sourced, scalable and may be simpler to manage. Ultimately, Cisco and NETGEAR are two very different companies focused on their unique strengths.