Guest column: Examine the state of your LAN

LANs were supposed to be easy by now. The near-universal convergence on unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) wiring of Ethernet LANs, TCP/IP stacks and Web browsers was supposed to end the turf wars and headaches of dealing with networks of mixed cabling, mixed topologies and mixed protocols.

The LAN infrastructure, we were told, would become like a data utility. You'd think about it as little as you think about the electric socket next to your desk. Well, maybe next year.

For now, the campus LAN rightfully remains a focal point of the infrastructure development effort. For every technology choice eliminated in the past few years, it seems like two more have sprung up in its place. With a three- to five-year time span needed to "remodel" the campus LAN, a wrong decision can remain an albatross for a long time. A technology choice made in haste can be your undoing, and the road not taken could rob your company of a significant competitive edge.

As we gear up for this spring's Tolly Group/Network World State of the LAN Town Meeting tour, I've been making my list of crucial technology issues. Examine the state of your LAN and see how your issues stack up against mine.

Better yet, join me, Network World's John Gallant and technically oriented executives from 3M, Alcatel, Extreme, Foundry, Lucent and Marconi as we make our way around the country during the next six weeks and let's talk about it in person. Check out www.nwfusion.com/townmeeting/lan/.

Here are a few things on my mind:

Packetised voice, the "un-PBX" and quality of service (QoS). The telephony steamroller is slowly but surely heading your way. The upheaval of dealing with a radically different LAN application and the migration of black-box PBXs to distributed LAN systems will have a big impact on the campus LAN. With the arrival of voice, QoS will move from an academic topic to an essential element. The presence of big bandwidth can't simply erase all our QoS concerns.

Switches. No longer are these essential pieces of infrastructure easily classified by noting the Open Systems Interconnection layer where they process traffic. With the emergence of load-balancing "Web switches" and vendors that claim to be able to process traffic at every layer from 4 to 7, we become almost paralysed by the switch selection process. And what else should a switch do? Should it also be a Web cache, a content filter, a firewall and a virtual private network server? They're all out there.

Wondering about wiring. The toughest decision of all is with regard to wiring. Sure, Category 5 UTP is safe, but is it right? Gigabit-over-copper products are rolling out at an increasing pace. And new systems built around Cat 5e and 6 UTP have shown they can do the job. But copper will never be able to match fibre when it comes to extended distances - and how far is far enough? There are claims that new fiber technology makes fibre to the desktop the best way to go.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Manasquan, New Jersey. He can be reached at ktolly@tolly.com or www.tolly.com.

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