3Com hopes new switch will challenge Cisco

3Com Corp. has released a 48-port version of its SuperStack 3 Switch 4400, claiming it to be the market’s first 48-port switch with Layer 4 switching capabilities that enables the switch to route traffic based on information contained in the transport layer.

The switch retains most of the features established in previous versions of the SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 family. It includes wire-speed performance across all ports, the ability to stack the switches products to create a single virtual switch of up to 192 ports, and Layer 4 application prioritization, said Nick Hallwood, director of 3Com’s enterprise business segment.

Another key feature is that the product integrates with the 3Com Network Supervisor management software, Hallwood said.

“Rather than having to understand anything about the application and which ports it runs on from an IP perspective, [users can] run 3Com Network Supervisor, click on a menu item that prioritizes business applications, and within six clicks, you’ll have prioritized which applications are important in your network,” he said. “It could be SAP, Lotus Notes, or Siebel traffic.”

Similarly, users can define low priority levels for non-essential traffic, such as MP3 data. The switch can also recognize the presence of telephony solutions on the network, automatically assigning a high priority to voice data.

Hallwood said the company hopes to steal market share in the switching business from Cisco Systems Inc., by providing better performance, lower costs and easier-to-use product line such as the 4400.

“There’s a clear difference between Cisco’s approach to the market and 3Com’s approach to the market,” Hallwood said. “Cisco has IOS [its proprietary operating system], which runs on many of their switches. But you have to get the right version of IOS for that particular product, and it’s inherently complex, because of the number of complex features they’re building into their switches.

“There are some benefits in that complexity, if you’re an IT person that wants to get into the nitty-gritty and control every bell and whistle of that product,” Hallwood added. “However, that doesn’t necessarily fit well into a business environment, where you’re trying to get a network infrastructure in place to support applications. Our approach is that people don’t buy a network because they want to play around with complex toys. They buy a network because they want to run a CRM system or integrate their voice and data applications. We make it easy for them.”

3Com also plans to steal market share from Cisco Systems through its Challenge Offer, announced in October, which offers cash rewards to channel partners who submit bids to 3Com after having already made bids on Cisco equipment.

The company claims that nearly 100 re-bids have accrued from the program. One such customer is the Exeter Township School District in Reading, Pa. The school district is currently replacing the entire Cisco-based core of its network to 3Com equipment because of advantages it saw under the program, said Joe Way, the School District’s IT supervisor.

“The [3Com] stuff is so much easier to consider and so much more affordable,” Way said. “It may not have the Cisco logo on it, but the [switch] we bought from Cisco a few years ago still sells for US$1,499 and it’s not upgradeable at all-it’s 24 ports and that’s it.”

Moreover, advanced features included in the SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 line, such as its Layer 4 packet prioritization capability, are not available in Cisco’s equivalent switch, Way said. “Cisco may offer [those features], but only in products that are way out of our league in prices,” he said.

The School District had originally turned to Cisco several years ago because of concerns that 3Com was abandoning the enterprise market, Way said. But a recent need for Gigabit connectivity sparked the shift to 3Com.

“The direction we were steered in by Cisco was a locked-down 10/100 solution,” Way noted. “So we had to get very competitive and look for products that could give us the features we want. Cisco’s not responding to the market as quickly as some other [companies] right now.”

Way added that the School District would not be replacing all of its edge switches.

“It’s foolish to just throw everything out,” he said. “There are some situations where 100Mbps from edge to switch is fine.” Hence, four of the District’s six buildings will remain Cisco-based.

Recently, Cisco officials have spoken of an increased focus on devices that can distinguish between 10Mbps, 100Mbps, and 1000Mbps (1Gbps) speeds as well as Gigabit connectivity to the desktop. The company expects to come to market with a 10/100/1000 switch within two years, according to Kathy Hill, vice-president of Cisco’s desktop switching and Ethernet access group.

However 3Com is already there, according to Hallwood. The company recently announced its new line of 4900 switches that deliver 10/100/1000 capabilities, which could be used in a desktop environment, as well as 10/100/1000 NICs (network interface cards) for both desktops and servers.

The applications that require Gigabit connectivity have not yet matured, but 3Com’s efforts to drive down prices could result in a spike in demand, Hallwood said.

“People will say, ‘If it’s only going to cost me 30 per cent more for a Gigabit port, rather than a 10/100, I might as well invest now,'” he said.

The 48-port SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 is priced at US$3,295. The 24-port version, launched in May, costs $1,595.