Apcon takes the

With its latest device, network equipment maker Apcon Inc. says physical layer switching should not require manual labour. And while at least one industry analyst agrees, he also questions certain claims Apcon makes.

Apcon, of Portland, Ore., in November unveiled the 10/100 Ethernet Physical Layer Switch. The device sits between the patch panel and Ethernet hubs and is designed to make quick work of cordoning off different parts of networks.

Instead of going to the wiring closet themselves to reconfigure network architecture, network managers can use Apcon’s box to perform the work remotely, suggests the company’s CEO, Richard Rauch. It’s not a software solution, but a remote-controlled hardware box that should make physical network connections, disconnections and redirections that much easier to do.

“With our product… you can physically break connections on the fly, isolate groups or people for security issues,” Rauch said.

Apcon is pushing the switch, with 16 or 32 RJ-45 ports, as a supplementary security measure, as well as a sort of network administrator. Through technology dubbed “AutoSwitch,” the device disconnects certain nodes automatically, thereby increasing security.

For example, if you know someone plans to use the computers in the boardroom from 3 to 4 p.m., have the switch automatically connect and disconnect those computers for the requisite duration – no manual labour required. That way the computers are connected to the network only for the appointed time.

The Apcon process provides the same level of security as cutting connections by hand, Rauch said, but it’s less tedious. And it’s not as “soft” as software, which, he notes, is breakable. “Give high school students the code and they’ll figure a way around it.”

Apcon also figures the device is perfect for isolating parts of the network for debugging, automating routing and removing network services.

The switch comes with a standard LAN port for remote monitoring, accompanying remote control software and, on the 32-port model, a menu-driven LCD display. It keeps as many as 16 frequently-used cabling configurations on file.

James Opfer, chief analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said Apcon’s switch speaks to a technological paradox: network testing requires frequent manual connections and disconnections, all in the name of automation.

Consider network-testing labs, where “they have all sorts of test bays set up and they bring everything into a patch panel,” Opfer observed. “Sometimes it’s quite remarkable to see all of this automated switching and everything else, but they’re (manually) plugging these things into a panel to test them.”

Apcon’s switch makes configuration easy and remote, so it hits “a very natural market,” Opfer said. “It’s just automating one piece of the network.”

However, “I’m not sure how big that market might be,” Opfer said. Apcon, however, is answering questions of security and physical configuration no one thought to ask before, and “people will buy into different things about it.”

Still, the analyst recognized a disconnection in Rauch’s logic concerning security. The switch may prove more secure than software, but it’s also controlled by software. Does this not mean that Apcon’s physical protection is ultimately hackable?

“It’s certainly a reasonable question,” Opfer said.

In an e-mail response, Rauch said the control software “is generally used locally by a secure administrator and it is not accessible openly. There is a short link between the administrator and the hardware; it has a tight shell around it.”

Plus, Apcon says the software actually improves network security when used in conjunction with monitoring products and policies.

Let’s say a hacker did get into the network, the firm suggests in a brief. The switch could shunt the intruder into a sort of electronic playpen where network minders would monitor her movement. Apcon’s control software lets administrators perform this function and the AutoSwitch program tells the device to do it automatically.

Prices for Apcon’s 10/100 Ethernet Physical Layer Switch start at US$1,995. Learn more about this product through the manufacturer’s Web site at www.apcon.com.