Test-driving third party optics from StarTech in the RSTS11 labs

Disclosures at the end, as usual.

This fall John Obeto asked if I’d be willing to try out some third party optical modules in some of the varied and random switches I have around the rsts11 home lab. Always willing to help a friend and try some new gadgets, I accepted the challenge. Today I’ll give you an idea of why you might consider third party optics for your switching, why you might not, and how the compatible modules from StarTech.com impressed me.

2018-12-01 14.02.27WHAT ARE OPTICAL MODULES?

First, a word on optical modules. For decades, switch manufacturers have made two kinds of ports on their switches, a fixed port and a modular port. Fixed ports were long popular on line cards, where you wanted to get 24-48 (or more) optical ports for fiber cabling into a small amount of space, and you knew your customer was not going to change their optical requirements on the fly.

Modular (or “pluggable”) ports, however, made it possible to sell switches at a lower initial cost and allow the uplinks to be populated later. It also enabled customers to use different connection lengths and media with the commensurate power considerations.

In Gigabit Ethernet (and 1/2/4 gigabit Fibre Channel), the standard has been the Small Formfactor Pluggable, or SFP, module. About the size of a AA battery or a small USB flash drive, it connects to a small blade port inside the switch, and “translates” the connection to short (SR), long, (LR), or extended/extreme (XR) range optics, or even to 1000Base-T copper.

For 10 Gigabit Ethernet (and 8/16 gigabit Fibre Channel), the standard is an extension of the same module called SFP+. Many installations within a rack or in adjacent racks will use copper SFP+ cabling (with no fiber involved), sometimes called Direct Attach Copper or DAC cabling.

There are other standards for faster connections (QSFP/QSFP+/QSFP28 for 40/100 Gigabit, for example), but we won’t cover those here.

WHY WOULDN’T I BUY THEM FROM MY SWITCH VENDOR?

If you’ve bought a switch from a manufacturer like Cisco, Netgear, HPE, Extreme, or the like, they’ll happily sell you the optical modules to go with the switch. For many/most network deployers, this is the way to go. You can order from the same place, have a guarantee that the module is validated and supported by the same 800-number that the switch is, and you can generally get to work faster.

Some vendors may even “lock” their ports, so that you can only use validated or certified optical modules. Inserting an unsupported module may result in a warning or alert, or the outright failure to acknowledge and activate the module for use. This locking serves two purposes, one being the simplification of support and compatibility, and the other being an additional source of revenue. Both can be understandable, practical, and annoying.

Since vendors do usually charge a lot for optical modules, companies willing to take the risk of a third party module may choose to do so, saving between 44-85% over original vendor street prices. They take on the risk of troubleshooting, should the module cause issues, and the vendor may require the modules be removed or replaced with their own approved modules if troubleshooting warrants it.

In the US, and probably other places, a vendor cannot void your warranty for using non-damaging third party components (memory, disk, controller cards, optical modules). They don’t have to support those third party components (and probably won’t), and you may have to remove them to get to a fully supportable and troubleshooting-ready configuration, but you may find that this risk is worth the financial reward.

I personally have found it so (going back to third party memory and network cards in Sun workstations in the 90s) more often than not. But I’ve been willing to own the situation and make adjustments if I needed the original vendor’s support. In an environment where I’m not hands-on with the gear, or where servicing might be required with less experienced hands on the equipment, I would still lean toward original vendor modules.

LOOKING AT THE MODULES

 

 

StarTech.com is a vendor who touts themselves as “Hard-to-find made easy(R).” They make a lot of cables, adapters, controllers, hubs, and other interesting components for computers, networks, and infrastructures. They sell direct online, through online retailers like CDW and Amazon, and bricks-and-mortar vendors like Fry’s Electronics. I’ve used a number of their jumper adapters, controller cards, PCI slot covers, and even a USB 3.0 powered hub or two over the last couple of years.

When I accepted this effort, I gave John a list of the switches in my home lab project pile, as well as a couple of switches in my home “production” network. He took the list to StarTech, who chose six modules to ship me for review. At the end of this post you’ll see a list of the modules, their current prices on Startech and Amazon websites, a “street price” estimate of the original manufacturer’s part from a leading national (US) reseller, and the estimated discount of Startech’s price over the OEM street price. (Prices are publicly available on the Internet as of Dec. 1, 2018, and are not based on any non-public discounts or arrangements.)

TESTING THE GIGABIT SFP MODULES

2018-12-02-14-09-15.jpgIn each of these test scenarios, I observed the recognition of the module from the switch’s web management interface. I ran traffic through the module to confirm functionality.

Module 1: MASFP1GBSXST for Meraki MS switches

The first module I tried was the MASFP1GBSXST, which is a Meraki-compatible 1-Gigabit Ethernet SFP module. Plugging it into the first SFP port on my MS220-8P switch, I got it recognized in the Meraki management dashboard.

To compare against a random, non-indicated optical module, I found an Extreme Networks 50500 (Finisar) SX GBIC in my desk drawer (scavenged from the bucket-o-optics at the now-defunct WeirdStuff Warehouse).

The Finisar/Extreme module reported as expected; with a loopback adapter, it detected the loop and blocked the port. The same happened when I plugged the loopback adapter into the StarTech module, as expected.

So the Meraki switch recognized the module just fine. But would it pass traffic? Time to get some fiber and a second device to try it out.

Module 2: SFP1000SXST for Netgear M5300-28G3 (or any MSA-compliant switch)

I got the second switch, my Netgear ProSafe M5300-28G3 Gigabit Switch, for which I have a MSA standard module (SFP1000SXST) from StarTech. Netgear doesn’t seem to block third party optics, so it was pretty likely to work. And it did.

Alas, the Netgear ‘s management IP was on a different subnet, so I couldn’t log in over the home network, but there was active traffic going back and forth. When I connected my laptop with an Ethernet adapter to the Netgear switch, I was able to reach the Internet, so functionality was as expected.

Module 3: GLCSXMMDST for CIsco Catalyst 2900-series

The third switch I tried the StarTech modules with was a Cisco Catalyst 2960G. The StarTech GLCSXMMDST SFP was recognized and operated normally, connected to the Meraki switch. The other three modules I had on hand did not, with the non-Cisco SFPs giving an error and shutting down, and the Cisco one just not doing anything (it may be dead, though).

Module 4: J4858CST for HP 2920-24G and other HP switches

The fourth switch was a HP Aruba 2920-24G with the J4858CST SFP from StarTech, connected to the Meraki switch. Again, it worked fine.

Module 5: TESTING TEN GIGABIT with Netgear and Cisco Small Business

The fifth switch I tried was a Cisco Small Business SG550XG-8F8T 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch, using StarTech’s SFP10GSRST SFP+ module. Since the Meraki switch doesn’t have 10 Gigabit Ethernet, I used a Proline FTLX8571D3BCL-compatible 10 Gigabit SFP+ on the Netgear, and patched the fiber from the Netgear to the SG550XG switch.

The Netgear was my “gateway” using a standard Gigabit Ethernet copper port. Initially I had both devices connected through Gigabit Ethernet to the network for access and verification.

The port came up as expected, with link. I was able to send traffic over the fiber link. Since the 1G copper port is for out of band management, I tested by connecting my laptop’s Ethernet adapter to a 10GBase-T port on the SG550XG, and it worked as expected, connecting from my Gigabit copper through the 10Gig fiber to the Netgear, and then out through gigabit copper to the home “production” network.

I did an additional test, using a Finisar-clone from Proline that was in my eBay inbox on the SG550XG, and it was also functional, suggesting that the SG550 line does not lock against “foreign” modules. I had seen similar results on another 8F8T switch in my VMware lab a couple of years back.

WRAP IT UP FOR US ROBERT

Optical modules aren’t the most exciting element of a network deployment, and that’s the way you want it. In this review we’ve looked at the basics of optical networking modules, covered the caveats of third party modules, and put five different modules from StarTech through functional testing with five different relatively-common Ethernet switches. (We received a HPE-compatible J9151AST module for testing, but the switch for it was not available in time for this write-up.)

The modules from StarTech worked as advertised in a number of network platforms I had in my home lab and home network. They’re as easy to use as an OEM product, worked well in locked and non-locked platforms, and are fast and easy (and inexpensive) to procure, whether from StarTech directly or through your favorite e-commerce reseller (even with Amazon Prime eligibility if you’re into that sort of thing).

If you have the competence and comfort level to handle the somewhat-more-complicated support considerations of using third party modules, it can be a beneficial option when deploying fiber connectivity in your network.

If you are building a home lab or home network, which is a lot of the focus of this site and its readers, it’s definitely worth the effort to investigate aftermarket optics.

However, if you want the convenience of single-source ordering and the comfort of single-source support for your networking gear, you’ll want to stick with optical modules from your switch vendor.

Module comparison:

StarTech Part Mapped to Speed Startech Amazon OEM at
Retail
Disc
GLCSXMMDST Cisco 2960 Gigabit 73.99 46.16 $383.99 81%
J4858CST HP 2920-24G Gigabit 73.99 49.55 $229.99 68%
SFP1000SXST MSA/Netgear GSM Gigabit 55.99 37.27 $99.99 44%
MASFP1GBSXST Meraki Gigabit 55.99 51.22 $368.99 85%
J9151AST HPE 5400R
(Not tested yet)
10Gig 496.99 351.57 $2,372 79%
SFP10GSRST SG500XG-8F8T 10Gig 342.99 272.49 $717.99 52%

 

 

Disclosures: This post was originally written for my friend John Obeto, who arranged with StarTech to provide the optical modules for a review. While the modules were provided at no cost to me, this is an independent review, done on my own time with my own hardware in my own dining room (it’s cold in the garage this month for some reason).

Nothing in this review is endorsed by, affiliated with, approved of, or even necessarily known to my employer, who makes a lot of networking equipment (including some of the devices I tested with). Also, StarTech did not direct or influence the review except as far as choosing which modules to provide.

In keeping with the Psycho Overkill Home Office (POHO) model of this blog, most of the devices tested are older and may be end-of-sale, end-of-support, or generally-relegated-to-doorstop devices from my home lab.

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