3Com gets back to the enterprise

Can we take 3Com seriously as an enterprise network vendor? 3Com's vice president of business strategy spoke to ZDNet

Two years ago, 3Com dramatically changed its networking focus, and many commentators thought they had seen the last of it in the enterprise space. At a stroke, it discontinued the big CoreBuilder switches that had been its main product for the heart of the corporate network, and handed the customers over to Extreme Networks.

In the following months, the company floated the Palm PDA business it had acquired with US Robotics, and also hived off its modem business, effectively spitting out the rest of US Robotics.

It all looked like the typical dot-com deconstructions of the time. Broad-spectrum but unexciting network companies like 3Com were routinely torn into pieces. The bits that could be made to seem "cool", because they dealt with service providers and other then-exciting markets, would hope for astronomical stock valuations, while the rest -- divisions dealing with dull sectors like the enterprise -- could sink or swim.

Like so many other dot-com restructures, it wasn't a great success. 3Com's DSL and telecoms ideas did not come to the fruition that was expected, though the company puts a bright gloss on this: "We were innovating ahead of the curve," said Karen Oddey, 3Com's vice president of marketing and business strategy. "Then the economy thing happened."

The most surprising thing about all this is that, two years later, the company is still in the enterprise sector, apparently doing very well, thank you. How come? Oddey's answer has the air of an oft-repeated explanation: "We never left. We actually exited the market for large complex chassis switches, often based around ATM, and shifted to Gigabit Ethernet." This is more than a little disingenuous. Extreme was the doyen of Gigabit Ethernet companies and would not have taken those customers if they could not be moved easily from ATM. So it seems strange that 3Com couldn't be bothered to do that itself.

But all that is in the past, and the future is much more interesting to a strategist like Oddey. She is much more keen to talk about 3Com's next big push in enterprise territory, which will use the cheap modular Ethernet switches it continued with, to replace the big chassis switches it ceded to the opposition two years ago. The move, called XRN, was described in detail at Networld+Interop last week. XRN adds redundant components to stackable switches, and promises links that will let a bunch of them operate as one geograhically distributed switch.

Like so much else from the network industry, industry, it's a roadmap of something not actually available now. 3Com followers will remember similar promises: last year, the company spoke of a personal Bluetooth hub that would get the cables off the business desktop, and before that, it promised NICs made intelligent by embedded Microsoft Windows 2000.

I wondered why some of 3Com's ideas happen and some don't

By way of answer, Oddey took me through the latest version of 3Com's grand plan. The company is trying to deal with three areas:

Connectivity: the NIC card and firewall business. The company plans to continue making these easy to use and competitive

Network switches: 3Com bundles wireless in with this part of the market, as well as voice/data integration, including the NBX digital PBX that is currently successful.

Carrier infrastructure: here 3Com is not a switching vendor, but an integrator and services organisation.

In the enterprise, the aim is to make stuff that is easy to use. "We're not the sexiest, or the first to deliver something, but when we do, we have it at a good price, and it is easy to use."

With that aim, it is easy to see that "leading edge" products that it has talked about in the past might easily get sidelined.

Embedding NT was seen as a way to deliver "policy-based networking" -- infrastructure which responded to the business priority of network traffic. This was a popular buzzword three years ago, but turned out to be difficult to implement with the technology of the time. Instead, 3Com has embedded more generic stuff on its NICs, starting with a firewall.

Similarly, a leading edge user might get excited about a Bluetooth hub that sits on his desk and handles all of his communications with PDAs, printers, phones and such, without cables. 3Com has a prototype, and a year ago spoke to analysts about the product it might launch. But so far, it is too complex a product, and clashes with the company's 80-2.11b strategy for wireless, said Oddey: "We have it in our labs. There are a lot of things we could wipe the dust off and turn into products at the right time."

Why should we believe in XRN?

So, with 3Com's history of launching things that turned out not to be such a good idea, why should we take it seriously over XRN? Absolutely, says Oddey, because this is the next logical step in reducing network complexity. More cynically, this is a marketing-led package rather than a technology pitch. One of the main positive things about XRN, as she describes it, is that it gives resellers that rarity -- something "new" to say about core switches.

"Chassis switches are flexible and redundant, but complex to expand, while stackables are affordable, but not highly reliable," she said. Making a more reliable stackable switch and letting it share a routing table with others across a "distributed fabric" (extra Gigabit connections and a shared routing table).

Right now, there is just one "reliable stackable" from 3Com, and a promise that sometime this year, 3Com will issue a kit to upgrade to XRN. Next year, is when things will start to get interesting, as 10 Gigabit Ethernet enters the picture. Oddey expects the technology to move from service providers' metropolitan area networks (MANs) to enterprise backbones during 2003.

Oddey is excited about the 802.1x network log-in protocol which was defined to make wireless networks secure, but which will also have a big impact on wired network administration. Although Microsoft's support means 802.1x clients will be widely available, so it should be more likely to succeed, the Microsoft client is only in Windows XP. "What we've done with our implementation is to make sure it is in Windows 98 and 2000. You don't have to have XP," said Oddey. "We also plan to build 802.1x into our switches." In the far future of XRN (the so-called "Phase 3") she says the distributed fabric will be brought together with 802.1x. "We will offer secure connection to a person over the network, but in a day-to-day usable way." Other announcements include unified messaging for the NBX network phone system, and continued support for wireless networking. Oddey is unwilling to choose between the rival "next generation" standards, 802.11a and 802.11g, but agrees with ZDNet's opinion that debate over the next generation may distract users from the fact that 802.11b is practical right now, Still number two to Cisco 3Com is number two in switched Ethernet port shipments, said Oddey, but could potentially beat Cisco in some small parts of the market, though the definition of those areas creaks a bit: "3Com can be the dominant player where people want performance and value for money," said Oddey. In other words, it can be the best player that is cheaper than Cisco -- a laudable but limited aim. This attitude shows up in initiatives like the 3Com Challenge, reminiscent of soap powder promotions, which offers to match technology from "your usual network vendor" at a cheaper price. "Sector by sector, we can compete," said Oddey, citing the small business market, and distributed networks for markets like finance and insurance. "We have got our finances under control," she said. "Our balance sheet is phenomenal for this industry."
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