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Network market moves to switches

This year may be remembered as the year the proverbial tide turned against traditional routing in the internetworking technology industry.

This year may be remembered as the year the proverbial tide turned against traditional routing in the internetworking technology industry.

Though the most visible signs of this trend largely will YEAR IN REVIEW not be seen until the coming year, the ramifications of the acceptance of high-end switching technologies are already being felt in the net gear market.

The networking market was thrown for a loop in 1997 due to the lower costs and higher speeds of switching as an alternative to routing. Though there were other trends of note--such as the increasing consolidation of the networking market via acquisition; the continued trend to meld voice, video, and data services within a single piece of hardware; and the continued craze for remote access gear--the evolution of switching could not be ignored.

Gigabit-speed switching start-ups and a variety of routing/switching hybrids received the bulk of the ink as the year progressed.

The majority of the product fruits of this cerebral migration to switching will be seen in the first half of next year, when volume shipments of gear that supports both switching and routing ships, such as the new Accelar route switch from Bay Networks. It is a repackaging of a box initially introduced by gigabit-speed start-up Rapid City Communications before it was purchased by Bay in June.

Analysts say the trend comes down to pricing and performance issues, period.

"Routers have served their purpose and they will continue to serve their purpose, but as their networks have evolved, administrators are saying, 'I need something faster,'" said Craig Johnson, analyst with market researcher Dataquest.

The most visible sign of the switching trend came when the leading networking firm in the industry, Cisco Systems (CSCO), disclosed in August that annual revenues from switching hardware products had surpassed revenues for the company's traditional strength--routing hardware--for the first time. This occurred even though the company's router sales were at their highest point ever in the company's history. Switching sales increased more than 100 percent year over year at the $6.5 billion firm.

"What's changed is the whole concept of routing and how Cisco will position routing," noted Esmerelda Silva, analyst with International Data Corporation.

Many of the roots of the networking industry are tied to routing technology, and no one believes routers will disappear any time soon--they will simply be moved closer to the network "edge" where the public Internet and private intranets intersect. A router often connects various geographically dispersed offices in a corporate network and provides Internet access.

The hardware has played an integral role in the development of the Net, being used in the "backbone" of this never-seen public network that allows users to access Web pages on any topic. Most service providers have implemented routers throughout their layouts and will continue to do so with the introduction of new, higher-speed routers, such as Cisco's 12,000.

A router uses a complex set of software to basically function as a network traffic cop at edges where public and private layouts intersect. Whereas a router will analyze every data packet sent through it, a switch will analyze an entire flow of data, making only rudimentary routing decisions, rather than analyzing at each packet separately. Switching, therefore, offers better performance in most circumstances.

The development of gigabit-speed switches this year arrived just as some started to complain about the performance of their routers in some portions of their networks. The confluence of these two trends offered a new round of start-ups the opportunity to tackle the problem using local switching technology and focused routing functions based on only a few protocols.

"Right technology, right ideas, converging at the right time," said Dataquest's Johnson.

And it should be noted that this greater dependence on switching technology could not occur without the industry and its customers' coming to an informal agreement that most data networking needs can be satisfied via use of IP, or the Internet Protocol--the dominant transport protocol for the Net.