Vendors spar in 'Great switching debate'

Vendors spar in 'Great switching debate'

The acronyms, spiced with barbed comments, were flying at the Great Switching Debate panel at ComNet '97 in Washington earlier this month, as vendors defended how they plan to offer users comprehensive strategies to manage network performance.

The sparring at the debate was representative of the upheaval in the networking industry - very evident at ComNet - as vendors scramble to meet the burgeoning demands of today's WANs, intranets, and the Internet, observers said.

Chief technologists from 3Com, Bay Networks, Cabletron Systems and Cisco Systems duelled with each other at the debate and took questions from a trio of third-party experts.

At the heart of the debate was how switching will be integrated into routing technology as the number of users, as well as the amount of traffic and multimedia applications, on LANs, WANs and the Internet increases over the next few years.

That switching will play an increasing role was not in dispute. The intelligence that routers bring to bear on reading every packet of data that passes through them slows down traffic. Switches, on the other hand, set up virtual circuits between end points in a transmission, sending packets of data along at wire speed. The hotly discussed issue is exactly what role switching will play, and what switching scheme will become standard.

"There was recognition on the part of the vendors of the increasing participation of switching at OSI network model Level 3 as a likely requirement in the future," said Thomas Nolle, one of the analysts on the panel.

The OSI, or Open Systems Interconnection, seven-layer model for implementing communications protocols defines Layer 3 as the networking level of the framework, for routing protocols such as IP (Internet Protocol).

The spectrum of opinions represented by the Switching Debate's vendors ranged from 3Com to, at the other extreme, Cisco, which seems to regard switching on WANs more as a way to accelerate routers, Nolle noted. "Bay seemed to line up more with Cisco, and Cabletron more with 3Com," Nolle said.

Hearing the evidence

All vendors agreed that Internet technology is putting a heavier burden on today's networks, and new traffic performance management is required, even in LANs as well as geographically dispersed WANs.

But panellists chided each other for marketing new "standards" that are neither approved by any standards body nor a widely deployed technology. At ComNet, observers have pointed out that what is called a standard is merely a protocol which only has been submitted for review to a body such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

And at the debate both the vendors and third-party experts hit Cisco especially hard.

"Cisco has produced many architectures out of its routing fund of knowledge," said Mick Seaman, vice president and chief technology officer for 3Com. "A lot of these seem to be up in the air and somewhat unstable."

Cisco was queried specifically about Tag Switching, which it has sent to the IETF for review. Tag Switching, according to Cisco officials, defines preassigned tags to routes using routing protocols, as opposed to IP switching - pushed by 3Com, IBM, Cascade Communications and Ipsilon Networks - which creates individual virtual circuits every time a communications session among devices is established.

"You've mentioned a lot of standards . . . and some of these standards are not really nailed down yet. Can you tell us when Tag Switching will actually be nailed down?" Seaman asked.

"We're hoping to see a standard finished by the summer time, toward the end of the year and . . . we're building product during that timeframe and if we have to adjust as the standard adjusts we'll do that," said Alan Marcus, director of technical marketing for Cisco. "But our goal is to have product ready when the standard is finalised."

In turn, 3Com was also hit with questions about how it was going to implement its Fast IP scheme.

In 3Com's strategy, once a server or PC initiates a request for data transmission, a router is used to forward the request to the destination while using the intelligence it incorporates to apply filter or firewall policies. Once the request is received by the end device or server, a response is sent - using various proposed standards for prioritising traffic - to the originating device via high-performance switches. The rest of the communication uses this faster, switched path.

3Com Network Interface Cards that plug into PCs will support the protocols necessary for Fast IP in the second half of the year, 3Com has said. But some of the protocols on which Fast IP is based have not been finalised.

"This is a new set of complex technologies that are still being defined," said Brian Brown, the director of Bay's product management. "How do you really expect a customer to change every desktop with this new unproven technology in order to really leverage the value of your announcement?"

3Com's Seaman indicated that the Network Interface Cards (NICs) that will be shipped later this year will incorporate support for the Fast IP protocols, and that existing NICs in desktop machines can be upgraded by downloading drivers.

"There are about 40 million 3Com desktops out there and at the moment we are shipping about 1.5 million a month; this technology will be available in all the drivers on our Web sites," Seaman said.

3Com was also criticised for duplicating work on MPOA (Multi-Protocol Over ATM) that is being done in the ATM Forum, but Seaman replied that Fast IP embraces both ATM as well as Ethernet network technology.

Bay, on the other hand, was quizzed about why it has distanced itself from 3Com's announcement last week with IBM and Cascade Communications, when the three vendors outlined how they would work together on Fast IP. Bay's neutrality seemed especially puzzling since last year they teamed with IBM and 3Com in the Network Interoperability Alliance, observers have noted.

Cabletron also had its turn in the firing line. Third-party experts and vendors alike pummelled Cabletron with questions about the closed nature of its technology.

For example, in Cabletron's Secure Fast Networking managed network technology, said Bay's Brown, it appears that users need to use a proprietary Secure Fast Network Server.

Cabletron's Chris Oliver, director of engineering and manufacturing, replied that while the server was needed initially in pilot projects, the server services now have been incorporated into the switches themselves.

One point of common ground among the vendors was that they all are struggling to create strategies that embrace the whole scope of users' networking needs, which now encompass heterogeneous networks, CIMI's Nolle said. And just as difficult as creating a strategy is trying to explain it.

Answering a pointed question about confusion caused by vague product announcements, Cisco's Marcus could have been issuing a mea culpa for all the vendors: "We do have to do a better job of tying this stuff together . . . as all of us vendors understand, there is competitive pressure, and sometimes you have to come out with something maybe a little bit earlier than you want."

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