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Sun faces stiff competition in networking

Company has officially entered content switching market with Nauticus gear--but critics say success is far from guaranteed.

Sun Microsystems officially entered the networking business with the launch of switches from its Nauticus acquisition--but competitors and analysts agree that it won't be a slam dunk for the server company.

Sun officially introduced the switches, along with several other products, at a quarterly product launch event in New York on Tuesday. The company acquired Nauticus in January 2004.

The switches are Sun's first foray into the networking gear market. The company plans to use the switches to balance traffic between servers and to offload Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption and decryption from servers.

By having the SSL encryption in the switch, servers will have more processing capacity to handle other tasks, Jonathan Schwartz, chief operating officer of the company, explained during Tuesday's presentation. As a result, companies can consolidate more functionality onto fewer servers.

But competitors said they aren't worried about the new competition. They said Sun is entering the market late. Other companies, including F5 Networks and Cisco Systems, have offered SSL offloading for some time.

"Just because Sun does servers well doesn't mean customers will purchase networking gear from them," said Jason Needham, a product manager at F5. "Nauticus was fairly immature when Sun bought them, so we aren't too worried."

For Sun to compete effectively in this market, it will have to keep adding more sophisticated capabilities, said Erik Suppiger, an analyst at Pacific Growth Equities. So-called load-balancing switches are evolving into traffic management devices that handle a broad range of functions, such as security and application load balancing, he said.

"The pure load-balancing market is not growing," he said. "The market has moved beyond simple Web load balancing. So companies in this market need to add other capabilities."

Other examples of advanced functions include the addition of security features like denial-of-service attack protection, software traffic compression and authentication. F5's latest product, Big IP version 9, does this and more, according to the company. Radware, Nortel Networks and NetScaler also have added more features, such as security tools.

Schwartz acknowledged this during his presentation and noted that innovation in server virtualization will continue to put pressure on traditional load balancing. But he did not elaborate on additional plans for the Nauticus switches.

Analysts say Sun's success in networking is not guaranteed. Other server vendors have tried to get into the networking market with varying degrees of success. Based on the history of its competitors, Sun may also have a tough time with its switches.

In 1999, IBM gave up on the market and sold its Ethernet switching and routing business, along with several patents, to Cisco for $2 billion. Dell, which sells low-end Ethernet switches, has also struggled to gain meaningful market share. After years of trying, Hewlett-Packard has only recently begun making significant headway in the Ethernet switch market.

Unlike these competitors, Sun is going after a more sophisticated piece of the market, which is more directly tied to its own server business. But even so, analysts warn that HP and Dell have not seen great success in reselling F5's load-balancing switch with their servers.

"I don't think that Sun poses any real big threat to traditional load-balancing vendors, at this point," Suppiger said. "They still have a long road ahead of them."