Companies like Alteon WebSystems, Foundry Networks, ArrowPoint Communications, and others have paved the way in the market to make the Web run smoother with new hardware and software technology.
Wall Street investors have also seen the future of the Web in these firms, and have taken part in many successful public offerings. Shares of Alteon nearly quadrupled recently on their first day of trading, while Foundry had one of the most successful public offerings of the year to date.
But as the market develops, established networking equipment firms like Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, and Cabletron Systems are finding that the opportunities are too lucrative to ignore.
All these companies are racing to build networking equipment that manages Internet data traffic, whether from an e-commerce site or an Internet service provider (ISP), in an attempt to alleviate what has been called the "World Wide Wait."
Alteon was first to market with the invention of a "Web switch"--a device that sits in front of a Web server to distribute data evenly from a source--for example, a request from a search engine--so no one server gets overworked. Alteon's chief executive Dominic Orr described the process as similar to a busy intersection, where traffic is coming from all directions.
"Where there is traffic congestion, you can put our switches in as a traffic cop," Orr said.
Will Layton, vice president of technology integration for Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch, said his company's Web sites have not suffered an outage since he installed Web switches throughout the firm's network. Layton is testing Web switch technology from Alteon and ArrowPoint.
For example, if a group of servers fails in Los Angeles, data requests are sent to another group of servers in Chicago, he said. "We've showed 100 percent availability even though we had a data center failure," he said.
Alteon used its switching technology to separate itself from what was once a crowded field of firms pushing network technology based on Gigabit Ethernet. Gigabit Ethernet is the latest speed upgrade for technology used to connect PCs and servers on a network.
Following Alteon, other firms looking for a niche in the competitive networking market have also joined with similar technology. F5 Networks, for example, has built an appliance that attaches to an existing network switch. The add-on appliance then acts just as a Web switch, distributing information evenly among servers.
Bigger players want a piece
The Internet traffic market has become too big for some of the larger, established networking firms to ignore, especially as service providers build huge data centers that are used to connect surfers to Web sites, analysts say.
The market for Web switching devices like Alteon's is expected to grow from $260 million this year to $828 million by 2002, according to a study by the Internet Research Group.
"When Alteon first came out with their Web switch, everyone sort of laughed at them. They thought it was a niche-oriented market, but it's a viable and real market," said analyst Esmeralda Silva, of International Data Corporation (IDC).
"There's a huge opportunity to sell equipment to better manage Web server farms, increase response times, and speed things through the network," she added.
Most of the big networking firms are preparing to release their own switching technology, or have already entered the market with products. Cabletron plans to ship its own Web switch this month. Nortel has licensed technology from iPivot. 3Com executives said they will announce the company's plans soon.
Cisco has a product called Local Director, which is an appliance that connects to an existing switch, similar to F5 Networks' technology. Cisco has also developed methods to speed information requests to the Web across a network--a function of the networking equipment leader's prominent position as part of most Internet layouts.
But Silva said Cisco's technology is older and needs to be upgraded either by adding more advanced features or by developing or licensing new technology.
Even though most of the networking heavyweights came into the Web switching market late, they no doubt will make a serious mark in the industry, Silva said. "It's a new market, so no one is late to the game."
"More and more companies will look at these intelligent devices to manage their e-commerce efforts. Customer relationship management will be important, so you want to be able to make better decisions with your content," she added.