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Networking industry hopes worst is behind

After a three-year downturn, organizers of the industry trade show NetWorld+Interop are pinning recovery hopes on the maturity of new technologies like VoIP and wireless LANs.

LAS VEGAS--Recovery is in the air as networking vendors prepare to show off their latest products at the NetWorld+Interop trade show here.

While organizers don't expect the 50,000-plus crowds they saw in 1999 and 2000 at this year's show, they do expect a modest increase from last year's 23,000 attendees. The show has already seen a 25 percent increase in the number of exhibitors compared with a year ago.

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"Vendors are more optimistic about their prospects," said Joel Conover, an analyst with Current Analysis, who follows the networking industry. "They seem to be coming out in greater numbers. But it's hard to speculate how that will translate into good leads for the companies exhibiting."

Leonard Heymann, vice president and manager of the NetWorld+Interop show, said the worst is finally over for the networking-equipment industry. He expects 2004 to mark a recovery. While many corporate customers remain tight with their wallets, they are starting to invest in new technologies, he said.

"We're right in the middle of a transition that was forced by the downturn," he said. "For a while there was lots of technology innovation, but little demand. Now the technology is a little more mature and companies are ready to spend."

The focal points of this year's show will likely be three main technologies: wireless LANs (local area networks), VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and security. This is not much of a surprise considering that these technologies have been hyped for at least a year.

But Heymann said these technologies have matured over the last couple of years. Wi-Fi and VoIP are no longer cool niche applications used by geeky guys in the information technology department. They're increasingly being used in corporate networks as critical pieces of infrastructure.

Heymann reported that about 20 percent of show attendees who responded to a recent questionnaire said they had already begun implementing a VoIP solution. Ten percent said they were in the process of setting up a VoIP network, and 25 percent said they are still considering their plans.

Conover agrees that VoIP and convergence in general is fueling most of the new developments in networking.

"Everything is being driven by converging applications onto one IP network," said Conover. "It doesn't matter if it's a better way of doing voice over wireless LAN or a firewall that handles voice traffic, it's all about convergence."

Traditional VoIP players such as Avaya and Cisco Systems will be showcasing their products at NetWorld+Interop this year, along with manufacturers of VoIP switches, voice-enabled routers, voice gateways and handsets, IP phones, streaming media delivery tools, videoconferencing gear, and portal software. Organizers also expect a lot of interest in new collaboration tools from such companies as Microsoft, Polycom, Raindance and others.

Makers of wireless LAN equipment will be making announcements about enhancements to their existing products designed to make them easier to release and manage. Last week Cisco announced an upgrade to the Catalyst 6500. Airespace is introducing an Intelligent Radio Frequency Access Point, which uses "smart" antenna technology to improve WLAN performance. Symbol Technologies is announcing a Mobility Services Suite that lets IT managers automatically provision, configure and manage mobile devices and WLANs.

Security will also be a hot topic at the show as companies are forced to deal with a whole slew of issues from denial of service attacks to worms and viruses that threaten to take down their networks. Security has become a big focus for the NetWorld+Interop network itself. Bill Wester, an engineer from Extreme Networks who is working as part of the NetWorld+Interop network team, said there has been a fivefold increase in the number of attacks launched against users on the NetWorld+Interop network this year compared with last year.

"We never really had to worry too much about security before," he said. "But this year it's a real issue."