College learns to let go when dumped by tech vendor

What do you do when a technology provider leaves you high and dry? Try going Zen: forgive and forget, like Bill Farkas did.

Farkas is co-ordinator of the Telecommunications Technology Program at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont. His office is located in Sheridan’s School of Computer Animation and Emerging Technologies (SCAET) building, the very scene of said abandonment.

Back in the late-1990s the SCAET project was just getting started, and Sheridan sought technology partners to provide networking gear for the futuristic edifice. Recall, this was during a somewhat silly time in the IT field.

Tech vendors “were flush with capital, and competing brutally with each other for a naming opportunity,” Farkas said during a recent interview. Sheridan had its pick of network providers.

After a vigorous selection process, the college chose to put 3Com’s enterprise switches into the environment.

Soon after the decision was made, however, 3Com announced it would no longer ship the CoreBuilder switches that were to be a part of the SCAET network infrastructure.

“We had to scramble and look at the remaining candidates,” Farkas said. “We hadn’t offended anybody yet by fully walking away. Cisco became our primary partner.

“That’s how sudden 3Com’s actions were. Absolutely no one anticipated it.”

Nick Tidd was 3Com’s country manager in Canada at the time, and he negotiated the SCAET deal. He heads 3Com’s partner program now. In an interview during a 3Com event in Las Vegas this week, he said his company couldn’t properly support the SCAET project without CoreBuilder or comparable equipment.

“It was felt that in order to do what they wanted to do in the SCAET building, they had to go with Cisco.”

But even as SCAET hums along on Cisco gear these days, there are still a few 3Com switches in the racks. No hard feelings, Farkas said. “In my own view, there was no derision, nothing negative said about 3Com at the time.”

In fact, “I thought…it was extremely prudent,” 3Com’s pulling back on certain product lines. Farkas added that the move gave the vendor room to strengthen its other offerings. “Looking at it retrospectively, if they didn’t do the absolute best thing, they did keep themselves to survive another round.”

For Tidd, the SCAET history is more a tale of the loyalty some Canadian organizations had for 3Com, and less a story of abandonment. He pointed out that the Waterloo Regional Educational and Public Network (WREPNet) – a high-speed data pipe for public institutions in Waterloo, Ont. – was in the midst of a CoreBuilder rollout when 3Com pulled the plug on the product.

“They made a decision to keep buying. We have about 250 points of presence in southwestern Ontario to this day that still run on that original infrastructure.”

And they might be coming back for more. “We’re having discussions with them about the 8800,” Tidd said. 3Com’s Switch 8800 is an enterprise-sized device produced in conjunction with Huawei Technologies.

“In fact, some of the early wins for the 8800 include the federal government. We’ve already had some wins in Montreal.”

Farkas noted that the network industry is coming back from the brink of 2001, when many an equipment vendor found itself on the wrong side of the profit-loss seesaw.

Perhaps due in part to the tough CoreBuilder decision, “3Com is going to be around,” he said.

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