Networking Thrives

Usually, when an industry's biggest player sneezes, everyone else catches cold.

Usually, when an industrys biggest player sneezes, everyone else catches cold. But in the realm of networking equipment, something like the opposite is happening. The biggest player, Cisco, has caught cold, and the little guys barely have a sniffle. We take these anomalous symptoms to indicate that the networking industry as a whole is in good health and, despite a puzzling and lackluster economy, the need for more and better-managed bandwidth for both wired and wireless networks continues unabated.

At the recent NetWorld+Interop show in Las Vegas, the number of exhibitors and attendees appeared to be off, but the number of new products and emerging technologies seemed on a par with previous shows. Here are some high points: Wireless networks of the 802.11b standard are set to proliferate now that vendors like 3Com and Symbol Technologies are addressing security concerns and chip makers like TI are bringing the cost down; 10 Gigabit Ethernet products will enter production later this year, and when they are deployed, bandwidth will increase and costs will drop as the economics of the LAN are extended over metropolitan area networks; and storage area networks are moving to IP and eventually to iSCSI—which portends the ability to store more data in more places at lower cost. These are not signs of an infirm industry.

To be sure, there is something of a lull overall. But that might represent something of an opportunity for upstart vendors presenting alternatives to Cisco. When Internet service providers and other major buyers were hard pressed just to keep wheeling in and turning on new boxes, it was probably hard for vendors such as Juniper, Redback, Sycamore or Foundry to get face time with large buyers. But now theres time for buyers to consider these companies, all of whom have solid balance sheets. The market for network hardware is defined by open standards, and this affords an enduring opportunity for aggressive competitors to both establish and gain ground.

Finally, a sentiment weve seen widely expressed on the Internet says it well: "There are three kinds of death—heart death, brain death and being off the network." Networks are the nerves of the future economy, and evolution is mostly about increasing organisms proportion of nerves and brains to dumb meat. We are not only not off the network, but the network is growing and maturing all the time. And that bigger and stronger network will fuel a livelier and more efficient economy. Its like Ted Nelsons comment about computer graphics: Networking is not merely an industry of its own, its the force that enables and propels developments in every other industry or field.