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Cisco's IP switching foes consolidate

3Com, IBM and Cascade move to consolidate the nascent IP switching market. Bay Networks may decide to join them in taking on Cisco.

3Com (COMS), IBM (IBM), and Cascade Communications (CSCC) made it official today, announcing they will join forces to consolidate the nascent IP switching market, a move that could be viewed as a preemptive strike against router giant Cisco Systems.

IP switching has been championed as a replacement for routers, the hardware that acts as a kind of traffic cop for every data packet that passes through a network. IP switching eliminates the need for a dedicated router, instead switching data over ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) or Frame Relay networks. Further, IP switching offers faster performance than routers because it addresses the total flow of data, rather than working with each packet separately.

Cisco Systems (CSCO) has been the biggest outfit so far to promote a specific strategy for IP switching, a blueprint it has hoped the rest of the industry would follow. Cisco' s Tag Switching for IP networks is currently being looked at by a work group of the Internet Engineering Task Force.

Today's agreement may turn what was a rather esoteric technological debate into a full-scale standards war as networking equipment vendors struggle to incorporate the protocol that underlies the Internet infrastructure, IP. 3Com officials said discussions are ongoing with a noticeably absent player, Bay Networks to join the fray.

3Com has already announced an IP switching strategy called Fast IP, but nothing has come to market yet. They will focus their technology on the desktop and local area network (LAN) components of IP switching, while IBM will provide interoperability via its Multi-protocol Switching Services (MSS) software, and Cascade will offer wide area network (WAN) access via its IP Navigator software.

With the addition of these two features, 3Com will be able to offer a feature set comparable to Cisco's Tag Switching, which is to be incorporated into the company's gear by midyear. A series of vendors have also signed on to implement the Tag protocols, but no release dates are set for availability.

"Right now we're focused on the customer requirements for IP switching in 1997," said Rick McGee, IBM's vice president of strategy and business development. "This is the first step in the industry toward consolidation."

The IP switching market was in fact pioneered not by Cisco but by start-up Ipsilon Networks. But Cisco is viewed as the most significant competitor in the arena because of its size and dominance in the router market. Ipsilon's Flow Managment Protocol (IFMP) is one protocol that will be used by the three vendors. Another protocol featured in the three-company mix is the Next Hop Resolution Protocol (NHRP), a standard that facilitates routing services in a switched environment.

This step is the latest in a confusing series of moves by vendors as IP switching architectures are offered to the marketplace one after another, even though an IP switching working group of the IETF is only starting to wade into the standardization waters populated by Ipsilon, Cisco, IBM, and others.

IBM will have its hands full, as it has already offered its Aggregate Route-Based IP switching (ARIS) protocol to the IETF for adoption. McGee said Aris--"in the long term"--can also offer consolidation of the market through support of other routing protocols such as Novell's IPX and IBM's legacy Systems Network Architecture (SNA).

With 80 percent of Internet traffic going through Cisco routers, any IP switching solution may include a built-in bottleneck unless it receives Cisco's blessing or administrators choose to rip out routers. "If Cisco doesn't participate in this, what kind of performance can I get across the WAN?" wondered Craig Johnson, principal analyst with the Current Analysis consultancy, based in Ashburn, Va.

"From a user perspective, the market is going to be muddied this year," said Johnson. "It's really unclear how the real "IP switching" is going to come out here."

Until now, none of the existing proposals for IP switching implementations has worked with others. By bringing together Cascade and IBM, 3Com can offer an IP switching architecture that spans implementations from at least two other major players, both of whom are big names in the WAN switching world.