Making Parallel Lines Meet

What's the difference these days between a full-service network equipment supplier and a distributor? Answer: Not much.

What's the difference these days between a full-service network equipment supplier and a distributor? Answer: Not much. I'm usually not big on riddles, but I couldn't think of a better way to illustrate the point that the pace of mergers and acquisitions in the networking world is defeating the primary purpose of the consolidation of the communications equipment business. Networking giants Cisco Systems, Lucent Technologies, Nortel Networks and others are presumably filling in the missing pieces of their soup-to-nuts product portfolio in an effort to satisfy the edge-to-core needs of next-generation service providers.

While that's a noble and strategically sound objective, net gear makers are acquiring these individual components so quickly that it's impossible to weave everything into a comprehensive and seamless fabric. Just because the Securities and Exchange Commission says company A is now part of company B, company A's product line doesn't suddenly fit like a glove into company B's product line.

When the marketing smoke clears, the "complete" product line is still just as much a collection of best-of-breed gear as it was before the marriage. The major difference is that a service provider can now write a single check. So how is that scenario any different from purchasing a multivendor collection of routers and switches from a reseller or straight from the distributor?

The real value of a multicomponent product line is the glue, which takes the form of management software or an operating system and bonds the individual equipment together. If an aggregation router and a core router don't share the same approach to assigning priority traffic-handling instruction to time-sensitive data or require separate management systems, stamping the same logo on the outside of the boxes is meaningless.

Obviously, a major goal of all equipment providers is to ensure that the level of integration between any two pieces of their product portfolios is superior to the compatibility that exists between their gear and equipment from a competitive vendor. Back when the bulk of technology was homegrown and acquisitions didn't occur more frequently than product introductions, that sort of system-to-system interoperability was possible.

With acquisitions routinely done in pairs these days, the resources needed to retrofit an acquired product into the same operating environment as legacy gear are just not available. Before Lucent can even begin working on assimilating Ascend Communications' product portfolio into its own, the company's acquisition division is adding high-speed routers from Nexabit Networks to the integration mix.

A few years ago, when best-of-breed was the preferred model for building a network infrastructure, the lack of a unified product line probably wouldn't have mattered. But that's not the case anymore. Now that service providers and carriers are beginning to roll out sophisticated services such as Virtual Private Networks and priority data delivery, a seamless network - edge to core - is essential for pulling off subscriber management and automated provisioning functions.

Accordingly, the network equipment provider that is first to wrap a common operating environment around its eclectic product line or build a service creation environment that is independent of the underlying hardware will find a warm place in the hearts of service providers.

Which of the major equipment vendors will be the first to weave a common thread throughout its entire product line?

That's a riddle for another day.

Joe McGarvey is the Networks Editor at Inter@ctive Week. He can be reached at jmcgarve@zd.com on the Internet.

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