PC giant Compaq Computer last year began an initiative to provide the infrastructure that connects end systems. Now, under the leadership of networking veteran William Johnson, Compaq's Networking Products Division is touting new technologies, including Gigabit Ethernet, for what the company calls Fast Access. Johnson, previously president and CEO of CrossComm and the vice president of networking at Digital, recently spoke with senior writer Stephen Lawson about the division's future directionsLawson: Will Compaq compete in every category of LAN and WAN equipment?
Johnson: No. We have the PC, we have the NICs (network interface cards), we have the servers, and the server cards. And we want to be major players around Ethernet hubs and Ethernet switches, and to make our presence known in the transition that's occurring from 100Mbit/sec to gigabit switching.
We want to be able to offer customers a complete solution from the desktop device to the server inside a site.
Now let's talk a little bit about starting at a desktop that is external to the site. And what we want to do there is really be a major player in remote access. That's both in the sense of the modems that are sold now and in the sense of providing racks of modems that would go into an Internet service provider, or switching in a telecommunications point of presence. It's not our intent to build really large switches that would go into the telecom companies and so forth.
Lawson: How can Compaq distinguish itself in the remote access devices arena?
Johnson: The theme around all of the communications products we have is to simplify and demystify networking. What we want to do is provide the simplest, easiest to use, easiest to install, easiest to maintain product to the marketplace. We don't plan to put our proprietary software or protocols into that, because that just makes this thing more complex. We have leveraged products from Microcom, and done some incremental design, but not much.
Lawson: What role can client systems play in the network?
Johnson: We are transitioning right now into a style of local area networking that is less around shared media and more toward direct connection to the desktop devices and switches. That means that your management capability can be positioned at the switch, as opposed to having to have network intelligence out, for instance, on an NIC on every PC. This only makes it more complex. The approach we're going to take is to provide a base level of functionality with NICs, and if customers decide that there are various other protocols that they want to have, we will offer them in conjunction with our partners, such as [Distributed] RMon, for instance, with 3Com. As you move to a switched base network, you don't have to have that networking management capability out in the desktop device because you can tell very quickly from the switch which line you're having trouble with.
Lawson: What complementary strengths do Compaq and Intel bring to the recently announced alliance?
Johnson: The drive on both our parts is to build simplicity into our products, so we can drive for higher and higher volumes, and therefore lower and lower costs. We take the semiconductors and put them on the boards and so forth, be they NICs or whatever the case may be. We can offer products that are simpler and lower priced because there's not as much stored in them.
Lawson: Where do you see Gigabit Ethernet playing in the LAN during the next couple of years?
Johnson: Because more of the communications bandwidth is being required for accessing information, one of the places for really speeding [the network] up is to have higher speeds out and into the server, and that's where we can get the NICs that give you the speed and the switches that are able to switch at gigabit speed into the servers.
Lawson: Do you see a place for Gigabit Ethernet in a server-to- server switch that joins together a group of servers in the network?
Johnson: Yes, absolutely. Let's say you have three gigabit uplinks, and you could put those into three different servers. One of the things you might want to do is also provide gigabit links between the servers, so if one goes down you always have a path to get to it.
Tandem has a really high-speed capability that allows for fault tolerance in many of the really critical-type applications. This also would offer a capability at higher and higher speeds. And although we haven't reached a conclusion on how we're going to integrate all our stuff, that is clearly under way. I'm hoping that it rides on Gigabit Ethernet.
Lawson: How does an enterprise provide reliable, predictable services to the user?
Johnson: As the network becomes the spinal cord of the organisation, it's important that a failure does not cause the network to go down or somebody to be cut offline. Therefore, this concept of line redundancy comes into play. However, as we do smaller switches, I'm beginning to believe that people will have the switch very close to their office. So if there's a failure, it'll be very easy for them to determine what's wrong, where it is, and go forward, although there may be a slight amount of downtime with that. If they don't want the downtime, then they use dual ports, and when one fails, it switches over to the other, managed through the switch.