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Is Ipsilon's work "confusing?"

Ipsilon Networks has defined a new market for high-performance networking gear, but insiders and analysts are unsure of its role in the industry.

If you scream loudly enough and often enough, eventually you will be heard. That may be the lesson learned by Ipsilon Networks, a small Sunnyvale, California-based start-up that has defined a new market for high-performance networking gear in less than a year.

Ipsilon's technology was given a huge stamp of approval Tuesday when 3Com (COMS), IBM (IBM), and Cascade Communications (CSCC) agreed to support Ipsilon's Flow Management Protocol (IFMP) as part of interoperability plans for a local-to-wide area network IP switching concept that will debut in systems the second half of this year.

IFMP is a peer-to-peer networking protocol that identifies different types of traffic when it communicates flow information. This allows a switch to prioritize and discriminate between different types of data flowing through the network.

While Ipsilon gained a large boost with the announcement, however, it is clear that it will take some time to separate hype from reality in switching concepts based on the predominant communications protocol of the Internet: IP. It is also clear that a working group within the Internet Engineering Task Force will play an important role in laying the foundation for how IP-based networks will function.

Ipsilon's role in the market has yet to be determined, despite its auspicious start. Ipsilon does not have a portfolio of products that support a wide variety of network topologies, though that will inevitably come. Industry observers agree that Ipsilon Networks has done a phenomenal marketing job to create a market for IP switching and drive the use of its protocols for that marketplace.

However, it has also taken a strident antirouter and hence anti-Cisco Systems (CSCO) and anti-ATM Forum stance. Ipsilon has included support for Cisco's routing protocol in its ATM switching product--a concession to the plethora of router-based networks in existence--but it remains skeptical of ATM Forum standards, even as it uses ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) to layer IP.

"If you look at their marketing message, it's aimed at Cisco routers and at ATM," Tom Downey, director of product marketing for Cisco's core business unit, said in a recent interview.

Ipsilon officials respond by noting that they will let the marketplace decide what's the right method for IP switching. They will not, however, wait for standards groups filled with executives from the dominant networking players to formulate protocols that serve their own self interests and "coopt" Ipsilon's techniques, according to Larry Blair, vice president of marketing for Ipsilon.

Ipsilon will soon support Novell's IPX protocol for file and print sharing over a network in its ATM switch. A demonstration of this new feature may debut at next week's ComNet '97 conference. Support is also planned for running Ipsilon's IP protocols over Gigabit Ethernet later this year as that standard is finalized.

But confusion reigns. Cisco, the primary target of the 3Com/IBM/Cascade alliance and Ipsilon foe, has submitted its own proposal called Tag Switching, which uses new protocols to direct flows through the network based on that network's topology. If a flow already has a tag when it enters a Cisco-based IP network running over ATM technology, it does not need a new one. IBM has also offered a similar proposal separate from the offering announced earlier this week with 3Com and Cascade. Both are being reviewed by the IETF.

Tom Tinor, manager for Cisco IOS software marketing, characterized the alliance announcement Tuesday as "confusing" since it involves adoption of multiple standards and software services from each company. "From a customer perspective, it's like, 'Wow, what do I run where?'" he observed. "This is one of the most heavily laden acronym announcements I've ever seen.

"We currently think Tag Switching has great merit and, when compared with Ipsilon's switching, is much better," Tinor added.

Cisco's immediate response to the alliance this week was to announce new enhancements to its enterprise router line that are expected to boost performance. The company also announced price cuts on existing equipment. The move continues a stated intention to ramp up speeds of Cisco's routers.

Development is under way on a "big fast router," as it is known internally, that will carry data at 30 gbps and upwards. The strategy by Cisco essentially adds brute-performance characteristics to a router's intrinsic protocol analysis and routing features in order to blunt the growth of switching technology, which carries traffic data through the network at higher speeds by making only rudimentary routing decisions and at lower cost.

Networking giant Bay Networks has taken a low profile in recent months as it attempts to get its house in order. Its reaction to this week's moves by Network Interoperability Alliance partners 3Com and IBM was predictably cautious. 3Com officials evidently brought the IP switching proposal to Bay officials only two weeks ago asking for an endorsement, according to Brian Brown, director of product management in Bay Networks' switching group.

At this point, Brown said, Bay is studying the proposal to see if it fits in with their previously stated plans for LANs and campus backbones using ATM technology and ATM Forum standards. "There are discussions going." Brown added Ipsilon's role in the marketplace and the role of its IFMP protocol is unclear: "I'm not really sure where the Ipsilon stuff fits."

As for claims by Ipsilon and executives involved in this week's IP switching announcement from 3Com, IBM, and Cascade Communications that IFMP has become a "de facto standard" for the industry, "I wouldn't claim that," Brown said.