LAN gear rolls out in changing industry

Enterprise network engineers on the prowl for new LAN gear in today’s slack market won’t find a flood of new products at NetWorld+Interop this week in Las Vegas, but some vendors will unveil faster and smarter equipment.

In a show that looks to be dominated by new security-oriented hardware and software, LANs, once the bread and butter of N+I, are likely to take a back seat, analysts said last week. In part this is due to the weak economy, they said. However, some businesses are beginning to embrace the fatter pipes and more advanced traffic tools now rolling out.

For example, Steve Spence, director of IT at the New York City-based U.S. division of U.K. apparel company Burberry Ltd., plans to set up desktop videoconferencing among the division’s 35 stores over an IP VPN (Internet Protocol virtual private network) by year’s end.

“It gets pretty expensive to bring the managers in from all the stores just to have a three-hour chat,” Spence said. The company also plans to bring all voice calls among the stores on to a VoIP (voice over IP) system. That would erase long-distance charges for about 80 per cent of the company’s phone calls, saving up to US$7,000 per month, as well as big maintenance costs for traditional phone switches, he said. Those initiatives will be carried out partly with a 3Com Corp. Switch 4060, a model now in use at Burberry that 3Com will announce this week is now shipping.

Attendees will see fewer new LAN boxes this year both because of the weak economy and because most enterprises are just beginning to gear up for the convergence of their voice and data networks, said Martha Young, research director at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., in Boulder, Colo.

“The focus is more on better leveraging existing infrastructures,” Young said. However, enterprises are using new software tools to analyse how their networks are used, so they can later implement networks that deliver special service for the most important applications in use, she added.

At the show, Hewlett-Packard Co., based in Palo Alto, Calif., will unveil a modular switch platform designed to deliver routing and application-based packet differentiation at an economical price. 3Com will introduce gear for connecting several of its routing switches into a single virtual device and will lay out a road map for 10-Gigabit Ethernet in the service-provider and enterprise networks. Intel Corp. also is expected to detail plans for 10-Gigabit Ethernet. Meanwhile, Dell Computer Corp., a relative newcomer to the LAN industry that may help to shape its future, will privately show off intelligent routing switches and a computer with Gigabit Ethernet connectivity.

HP will unveil a modular switch platform with Layer 3 routing and Layer 4 application-based differentiation among packets. HP says the new Procurve Switch 5300xl series of switches will deliver these capabilities for as little as US$99 per 10/100Mbps port, a competitive list price in a market that will continue to see prices fall, according to IDC analyst Jason Smolek, in Framingham, Mass. IDC is a division of International Data Group, the parent of IDG News Service.

The new platform will be available in an 8-slot and a 4-slot chassis, both of which can be equipped with 10/100Mbps Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet interfaces. The 5304xl and 5308xl models come without port modules and can be equipped with the following modules: a 24-port 10/100Mbps module, a 4-port Gigabit Ethernet module and a 4-port module with slots for fibre-based mini-GBIC (gigabit interface converter) modules. The 4-slot 5348xl model comes with 48 ports of 10/100Mbps Ethernet and the 8-slot 5372xl comes with 72 10/100Mbps ports.

HP built the new platform around its own highly integrated ASIC, which performs all switching functions and can be programmed with new features through software, according to Darla Sommerville, product marketing manager for HP’s Procurve group.

The highly integrated chip should reduce heat, power consumption, weight and cost, said IDC analyst Paul Strauss. However, possibly the most important feature for customers is a lifetime warranty with free support by phone, which is essentially unheard of in the network equipment business, Strauss said. The products are likely to be most popular for medium-sized businesses and branch offices, he said.

Also at N+I, HP will introduce a module for its Procurve Switch 4100 series that has spaces for six Gigabit Ethernet fibre interfaces. The 4100 series Layer 2 standard switches, which are priced starting at US$62 per port, will get free software upgrades for Layer 3 routing by the end of this year, said Stan Takata, an HP product manager.

The new products are expected to begin shipping June 1.

As HP looks toward what it expects will be a massive merger process with Compaq Computer Corp., the lifetime warranty suggests its networking plans are long-term, IDC’s Strauss said.

“This indicates they are focused on it a lot more than they were in the past,” he said.

For their part, HP executives expressed optimism about the future of the networking unit.

“This networking business has been a key part of HP, and it’s one of the few places where there is no overlap” with Compaq, HP’s Sommerville said.

3Com, in Santa Clara, Calif., will unveil hardware modules for linking 3Com LAN core routing switches using the company’s XRN (Extended Resilient Networking) high-availability system. The XRN Interconnection Kit will include two interface modules, special copper cabling and software for creating 4Gbps links between core devices. It will ship in the fourth quarter for US$9,995.

XRN lets enterprises connect multiple core devices over distances as great as five meters so they can act as one logical device. This delivers the reliability of a redundant standby system but lets the enterprise use all the ports and processing power of the switches all the time, according to Jeff Garner, director of the modular LAN business at 3Com. XRN will work in the company’s SuperStack 3 Switch 4900, 4900SX, 4924 and 4950 devices, as well as in the Switch 4060, all of which are Gigabit Ethernet routing switches that aggregate traffic from workgroup switches as well as from servers.

The company also will announce it is now shipping the Switch 4060, priced starting at US$17,995. The 4060 comes with 24 Gigabit Ethernet ports, with a mix of copper, fibre and GBIC interfaces.

3Com also will look toward the next generation of LANs, unveiling plans to introduce 10-Gigabit Ethernet switches for the LAN core in 2003. The emerging interconnection technology so far has been expensive and adopted mostly for metropolitan-area wide-area networks, but as prices go down it will become attractive for the large enterprise core in 2003, Garner said. In addition, 10-Gigabit Ethernet uplink modules will become available to link Gigabit Ethernet switches to the 10G-bps core.

The Switch 4060 is ideal for future traffic growth and applications because it offers QoS (quality of service) features as well as the capability to add 10-Gigabit Ethernet when the need for it arises, said Burberry’s Spence.

Dell, based in Round Rock, Tex., will demonstrate privately its upcoming PowerConnect 3248 and 5224 switches. The 3248 standalone switch will feature Layer 3 and Layer 4 capability and four priority queues for classifying different types of traffic. It will feature 10/100Mbps Ethernet as well as copper and fibre Gigabit Ethernet capability, according to information from the company.

The 5224 will be an all-Gigabit Ethernet switch for both copper and fibre and will feature Layer 3 capability and four priority queues. Both switches will ship in mid-June, according to Dell.

Dell also will show off its OptiPlex GX260 PC with Gigabit Ethernet connectivity. The system will become available about two weeks after the show.

The online-sales PC giant hasn’t made much of a dent in networking yet with a line-up of mostly low-end switches, but its approach is likely to make enterprise LAN gear much more of a price-sensitive commodity, said IDC’s Smolek. That industry traditionally has been a technology-driven, high-margin business.

“Dell will translate what they learned in the PC market to the networking industry,” Smolek said.

“While Dell doesn’t really have any sales yet, they have already changed the dynamics of the whole market,” he said. “We’re talking major price commoditization to come.”

Dell’s reach into big enterprises threatens midtier vendors such as 3Com and HP rather than networking giant Cisco Systems Inc. or Taiwanese budget-priced vendors such as D-Link Corp. and Linksys Group Inc., Smolek said. HP’s service and support offerings may provide a critical edge in that competition, he added.

Networld+Interop will run through May 10.