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Networking players rally around IP

A new deal between Cisco competitors Cabletron Systems and Ipsilon Networks could change the networking landscape.

A new deal between billion-dollar networking player Cabletron Systems (CS) and IP switching pioneer Ipsilon Networks could clean up the networking landscape currently littered with products, road maps, and promises related to high-speed switches.

Under the terms of an agreement announced this week, Cabletron will invest $20 million in Ipsilon. It's the single-largest investment the start-up has received from a partnering company since its debut in 1994. In return, users of Cabletron SecureFast SmartSwitches for LANs (local area networks) will be able to tie their equipment to Ipsilon's ATM (asynchronous transfer mode)-based IP switch to route traffic across campuses and WANs (wide area networks) through support of routing standards. Cabletron will also support Ipsilon's homegrown protocols.

Cabletron makes switches that tie desktops and servers to a LAN or tie multiple LANs together in a building. Ipsilon created the concept of IP switching, which provides routing in a high-speed, lower-cost switch. IP is the dominant communications protocol of the Internet.

Other networking vendors have quickly joined the IP switching craze, including Bay Networks, IBM, and Madge Networks. However, current implementations of the technology vary widely, despite similar "IP switching" labels.

Until now, Cabletron was still smarting from the ramifications of an anti-Cisco Systems advertising campaign last fall highlighted by a glitzy, scripted boxing match at Networld+Interop in Atlanta. In the bout, a svelte challenger representing Cabletron knocked out a tubby relic representing Cisco Systems.

The campaign, which also included print ads critical of Cisco's equipment, could have been shrugged off as a typical ploy by a competitor if Cabletron had not been licensing Cisco's internetworking software at the time. As a result, Cisco pulled the plug on the licensing agreement, forcing Cabletron to look elsewhere for WAN links. That led to the Ipsilon deal.

Skip MacAskill, analyst with the Gartner Group consultancy, noted that the move indicates a new emphasis on openness from Cabletron, whose equipment has been pegged with the "proprietary" label in the past. "It's a pretty big step for them," he said.

"Cabletron is trying to make a move to shore up some technology and access they no longer have through the Cisco deal. It shows Cabletron is thinking about the importance of the WAN."

Ipsilon has been in a high-pitched battle to win converts to its technology as a method to minimize a network administrator's dependence on routers. The main target of the effort has been Cisco, a company that has built itself into a networking powerhouse through sales of routers. By linking IP switches with Cabletron equipment, the duo can offer customers a network topology that does not necessarily require use of routers.

Previously, Cabletron's SecureFast software, which offers network cut-through capabilities for IP within a LAN, was not viewed as a peer to a router that connected multiple sites because the software does not support routing protocols. Ipsilon's switches--through support of routing protocols--can be viewed as a peer.

"This partnership enables switching everywhere," said Trent Waterhouse, Cabletron's LAN switching market manager.

By adding Cabletron to its list of partners, Ipsilon is quickly gaining some leverage in the upcoming standards war on IP switching. Other IP switching protocol adoptees include Digital Equipment and 3Com.

Ipsilon's software includes two protocols to facilitate switching of IP: the General Switch Management Protocol (GSMP) and the Flow Management Protocol (FMP). Cisco has its own version of IP switching, dubbed Tag. Both protocol sets have been submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force for review.

The agreement will give Ipsilon a "shot in the arm" in terms of credibility and could sway the standards process, according to Craig Johnson, principal analyst at Current Analysis. With eight partners in tow, Ipsilon's IP implementation could flex its muscle within the standards committees, he said.