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Can IS get a standard?

IP switching and Gigabit Ethernet are sure to be hot topics at next week's Networld+Interop show, yet there is no true definition of an IP switch and still no standard or products for Gigabit Ethernet.

Internet Protocol (IP) switching and Gigabit Ethernet will be the two hottest networking topics at next week's Networld+Interop show in Atlanta. There are caveats, however. No one has come up with a true definition of an IP switch, leading to proprietary implementations, and there is still no standard or products to speak of for Gigabit Ethernet.

As attendees listen to pitches from vendors such as Cisco Systems, Ipsilon Networks and Cabletron, they're going to have to be clear on the issues they face when incorporating Gigabit Ethernet and IP switching, according to analysts.

Gigabit Ethernet is a faster version of Fast Ethernet and Ethernet, the two types of networking pipes that dominate LANs (local area networks). IP switching is all the rage because it revolves around the standard protocol for the Internet. The question for networking vendors is how they distribute IP packets in a standard way from their routers and switches.

Ipsilon Networks was the first vendor to offer IP switching, providing an IP-based infrastructure with its accompanying performance gains for the enterprise. Others have followed, including the four networking heavyweights: Cisco, Cabletron, 3Com, and Bay Networks.

"Everyone is struggling now to make switching decisions more intelligent as it relates to Layer 3 processing," said Skip MacAskill, an analyst with the Gartner Group consultancy.

Cisco, in particular, "has a lot at stake" as IP switching is integrated with routing, according to MacAskill, because it is "the undisputed Layer 3 leader in the world."

Cisco will introduce Tag Switching software, a new set of software that integrates IP switching with its routers at next week's Networld+Interop.

The problems these vendors--and, more important, users--face is that none of the IP switching solutions currently on the market are based on standards. Each solution is based on proprietary protocols, all of which, of course, are submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force for adoption as a possible standard.

The same can be said for Gigabit Ethernet development. Products currently being offered, such as a two-port board for the MMAC Plus chassis to be announced at the show by Cabletron, are not guaranteed to work as a standard for Gigabit Ethernet is hashed out over the next year by the Gigabit Ethernet Alliance.

"What are the odds of vendors turning into a standards-based product? Anyone who buys into this stuff early should really drill down on the vendors" to avoid being boxed in by proprietary products, noted MacAskill.

As a Gigabit Ethernet standard gets closer, analysts predict the big networking companies will take advantage of the development efforts of start-ups and swallow them in a buying frenzy. Cisco has already taken out its wallet, purchasing Granite Systems, a Gigabit Ethernet company with no products available yet, for $220 million.

The clamor over Gigabit Ethernet technology may be well founded. Market research firm Dataquest predicts the Gigabit Ethernet market will be worth $3 billion by the year 2000.