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Networkers explore options at ComNet

The cutting-edge combination of voice and data networking reaches a fevered pitch as players rush into the market, scrambling for the same niche.

The cutting-edge combination of voice and data networking has reached a fevered pitch as players rush into the market, scrambling for the same niche.

Various firms in the networking industry will gather this week in Washington to debut the latest technologies in their war chests. The companies aim to bridge the divide between voice technology networks and data communications technology offerings.

The convergence of traditional voice-based networks with more cost-effective layouts based on equipment provided by firms such as Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, and 3Com is the new industry buzz, underscoring one of the largest shifts in networking in some time.

Analysts predict data equipment that embraces voice features and integrates current voice networks will be one of the largest market opportunities in the coming years--with some pegging the market in the tens of billions of dollars.

Embracing the trend as part of its core strategy, data networking leader Cisco launched a new line of high-speed equipment based on various versions of Ethernet, the dominant means used to connect PCs and servers. The equipment, combined with new technology for an existing line of fast-selling devices called the Catalyst 5000, feeds into the company's strategy of adding voice capabilities to existing and new hardware.

The new lines, to be called the Catalyst 6000 and 6500, leaves Cisco with what could be perceived as a confusing array of switching equipment for a sector that remains one of the fastest growing niches in the business. But executives claim the new additions only add more flexibility for its customers, and indicate a trend toward specialization in the market.

"There are multiple options," said Marthin De Beer, director of product marketing for Cisco's switching business.

The new 6000 and 6500 lines shipping now include high-density options for gigabit-speed Ethernet, the latest version of the technology. Cisco has been taking hits from competitors on the state of their product line in this area for some time, but with recent developments, the company seems to have made some ground.

"What you see now is that we have a complete set," said De Beer. "In terms of actual delivery, we're right in line with these other vendors."

Cisco also rolled out a new option for its Catalyst 5000 line that can separate voice traffic from data transmissions, and adds reliability features within the latest version of its Internet working operating system (IOS) software so voice communications can be completed.

Cisco also claims to have a pricing edge versus competitors such as Nortel Networks and Cabletron Systems, though any pricing differentiation in the cut-throat Ethernet-based switching market is usually short-lived.

And Cisco is only one of slew of networking players targeting the bridge between the voice and data networking worlds.

Nortel plans to add new software features within its Passport 4400 line of devices that support a variety of networking technologies. The new code supports a series of voice protocols that allow customers with existing digital voice networks to add the same advanced services, such as caller identification, currently offered for segments built using the Passport switches.

3Com said it is now shipping a new system for IP-based voice traffic, based on its Total Control remote access concentrator hardware. The new technology can be integrated with existing voice-based switches or rolled out as part of a new service, according to company executives.

The roll out includes a three-tiered technology approach, consisting of gateways, so-called gatekeepers, and back-end server technology, according to the company.

3Com also said it will soon ship a new PBX system that combines voice and data for small and medium-sized businesses.

The so-called SuperStack II PBX 1000 is the first product from the 3Com and Siemens joint venture announced last December.

The new SuperStack II hardware and software, based on technologies from both firms, costs $157 per subscriber based on a total of 28 users. The product, which will include three 3Com digital telephones, will ship Feb. 1.

Furthering its aims in the market for digital subscriber line (DSL) hardware, 3Com also rolled out two new DSL-based modems based on symmetric and ISDN-based technology. The new additions to 3Com's DSL strategy are intended for small and medium businesses as well as competitive local exchange carriers, or CLECs.

Also, data player Newbridge Networks will debut another piece in its so-called versatile IP strategy. The company plans to announce a new service that runs on top of its 36100 access concentrator hardware that makes it easy for service providers to provision Internet access and virtual connections to users, such as telecommuters or remote offices.

Later this year, the strategy will be buttressed by the addition of voice-over-IP features, according to company executives.

Separately, systems giant IBM is hoping to re-invigorate its networking business with new additions to its own line of Ethernet-based switching devices. The new gigabit-speed Ethernet switches represents IBM's bid for a portion of the lucrative switching market, and is comprised of a combination of internally developed technology and hardware developed by Xylan, a company that licenses its products to IBM.

Also, Cabletron Systems is expected to announce new additions to its product line based on asynchronous transfer mode, or ATM, technology.

The activity is part of this week's ComNet industry trade show.

CNET's Wylie Wong contributed to this report.