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Giants focus on wide area networks

Cisco, Cabletron, Bay, Ascend, and 3Com all are rushing to provide next-generation equipment to address the needs of high-end customers.

Across the networking landscape, companies continue a collective rush to provide next-generation equipment for carriers, service providers, and large corporate networks, with an emphasis on support for particular networked services and multimedia traffic.

Cisco Systems, Cabletron Systems, Bay Networks, Ascend Communications, and 3Com all are attempting to address the needs of high-end customers that require fault-resistant equipment, which also happens to cover the highest profit margin areas in the networking business--a key driver in what has become a volatile market.

Whatever flavor of technology a customer requires for links of wide geographic regions--whether it is ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) or frame relay, among others--networking firms are scrambling to get their high-end houses in order.

Cisco is expected to launch an assault on the high end of the ATM-based switching business next week, attempting to augment the momentum of its Stratacom line of equipment with new devices incorporating higher speeds and densities, according to sources.

According to a Cowen & Company report, the new equipment will feed into the company's plans to incorporate voice capabilities throughout its product line: "This platform will likely have integrated voice capabilities and allow Cisco to enhance its strategy of competing effectively at the edge of service provider networks where most of the intelligence in the network resides."

Sales of ATM-based equipment are expected to grow about 55 percent to 60 percent over the next 12 months at Cisco, according to a NationsBanc Montgomery Securities report.

Cisco's announcement is expected next week at the ATM Year 98 conference and trade show, according to sources.

Cabletron also will use the occasion of ATM Year 98 to roll out a new line of ATM-based switching devices. One switch is the result of the company's recent deal to acquire elements of Digital Equipment's networking business; another will be an internally developed SmartSwitch model.

Ascend soon will take the wraps off a new multiservice access concentration device for multimedia traffic called the SA 1200, sources said. The equipment, due to be announced next month, according to sources, supports a variety of interfaces and is designed specifically for multimedia applications, targeting a niche in which Yurie Systems has excelled.

Not to be outdone, Bay announced plans to deliver a new type of routing device that incorporates a frame relay switching capability in the same chassis, obviating the need to deploy separate equipment within the core of a service provider network.

The Bay launch, which will result in shipments in the first quarter of next year, is targeted at the growing opportunity for service providers to sell leased lines and particular services on top of them. The Verselar Access Switch 15000 can support up to 672 TI-based connections at prices of about $500 per link.

Sally Bament, a vice president of product marketing at Bay, said the new equipment is intended to satisfy the service provider appetite for devices that support next-generation Net services.

Analysts said the combination could be a positive for Bay. "They've done a very good job of finding a niche," said Ray Keneipp, principal analyst for carrier infrastructure at Current Analysis. Currently, a combination of Cisco routers and Ascend switches provides similar functionality within most service provider layouts, he added.

All this activity follows the announcement last month from 3Com that it would target wide area needs with repackaged ATM-based switching devices gained via the company's partnership with Newbridge Networks. The new PathBuilder line is aimed at carriers, with the addition of support for frame relay and Net access due by the second half of this year.

3Com's rollout also targeted the merging market for equipment that supports voice, video, and data traffic within a single piece of hardware.

The networking firm--largely known for the consumer-oriented networking card and modem products it provides--has spent the past couple of years shoring up its corporate and service provider equipment story. "This is the first big step in our WAN convergence piece," noted Randy Brumfield, director of product management for 3Com's broadband access division.