Cisco makes play for metro area switching

Although Cisco Systems Inc. is the dominant supplier of enterprise networking equipment, analysts said the vendor lags in the service provider category where traditional telecommunications equipment manufacturers like Nortel Networks Corp. rule.

But Cisco maintained that an optical switching system it announced Wednesday should help in its quest for a bigger share of the service provider networking market and at the same time open a door to the storage-area network (SAN) arena.

Cisco calls its new system the ONS 15540 Extended Services Platform (ESP), and company officials said it was developed in-house rather than through acquisition, as were earlier products in the Cisco optical line.

The ESP employs Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM), a technology that increases bandwidth by shooting different data streams at different frequencies or wavelengths over the same optical fibre. The initial system will accommodate as many as 32 individual wavelengths that can operate at speeds ranging from 16M bit/sec. to 2.5G bit/sec. The basic system will sell for US$67,000 and is expected to be available next month, Cisco officials said.

Cisco’s main competitor in this area is Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel’s Optera system. AT&T Corp. plans to use both systems for its Ultravailable Broadband Network, an optical network for large corporate customers, said Bernie McElroy, vice-president of business development for business continuity solutions at AT&T.

But McElroy wouldn’t comment on the cost and performance difference between Cisco’s and Nortel’s systems; instead, he said the brand of equipment AT&T installs depends on the application and, often, end-user preferences.

David Willis, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said that although the new Cisco system may have some price advantage compared with Nortel’s Optera, Cisco still doesn’t have the strong relationships with service providers, particularly large carriers, that Nortel does.

But Grier Hansen, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said the new system makes Cisco competitive at the core of metropolitan-area networks as well as at the edge.

A key question is whether the new DWDM product will help Cisco penetrate the lucrative SAN market.

Bob Zimmerman, a storage analyst at Giga, said he believes it will. He predicted that Cisco’s move into the storage arena would ignite competition with San Jose, Calif.-based SAN switching technology leader Brocade Communications Systems Inc., which owns 60 to 90 per cent of the switch marketplace. “I think Cisco is going to dominate that discussion,” Zimmerman said.

But Greg Brashier, an analyst at Strategic Research Corp., a network storage management market research firm in Santa Barbara, Calif., said DWDM in the SAN marketplace is still very much in its infancy.

“Most [potential buyers] won’t even know what [DWDM] stands for,” he said.

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