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Cisco in midrange switch niche

The networking behemoth says it will start shipment of flexible midrange network switches, filling a hole in the company's ever-expanding product line.

The booming market for flexible midrange network switches just got a bit more crowded.

Networking behemoth Cisco Systems (CSCO) said today it will start shipment of a new line of hardware that fills a large hole in the company's ever-expanding product line. Four new devices, two of which are available now, compete directly with models from 3Com and Bay Networks and could initiate a no-holds-barred struggle for dominance in the lucrative niche for flexible, high-speed switching hardware.

Cisco has been silent up to now as both 3Com and Bay have introduced a new take on Ethernet-based switches that offer attractive 10-mbps or 100-mbps port densities and slots for modules that can support high-speed technologies such as ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) and emerging Gigabit Ethernet.

Cisco executives said they have seen Bay's 350 switch in some customer accounts in particular, but the introduction of the new 2900 line should squelch those initial successes. "I think we'll see less and less of that," said Richard Martin, product manager for the new line.

"Orders have exceeded our expectations," Martin added. "We're very bullish on the product."

The two models available immediately--the 2908 XL and the 2916 XL--are targeted at the back-ends of small businesses and as a modular, midrange box that can sit between desktop connections and larger networking hardware, respectively. The 2908 XL offers eight 10/100-mbps ports while the 2916 XL includes 16 10/100-mbps ports and support for two modules.

Two models that will ship in March--the 2924 XL and the 2924C XL--offer 24-port densities.

In addition to Ethernet-based modules for higher port densities, other additions for the new line will roll out in the second half of this year. Those include modules supporting Gigabit Ethernet and virtual LANs (local area networks). An ATM module is also expected, but Cisco executives refused to give a time frame.

Cisco executives said the new line has the capacity to send data traffic at rates of 3 million packets-per-second.

Pricing for the new gear could be a distinguishing factor due to the crowded field. Cisco's line has per-port prices starting at $166 for the 2924 XL and topping out at $297 for the 2908 XL.

Some analysts wonder if those prices are low enough, given the state of the market. "Cisco believes it can get higher price points out of their products because of the Cisco name," said Craig Johnson, analyst with Dataquest. "Cisco has a name, but that doesn't necessarily translate into anything else. People want price."