3Com CEO bullish on being Cisco alternative

3Com CEO Bruce Claflin says there is a void in the market for enterprise network infrastructure - an absence of an alternative to Cisco . And he intends to fill the gap.

To do this, 3Com is plotting a road map of new products and technologies - security, WAN routing, 10 Gigabit Ethernet and IP storage - that it will roll out over the next six to 12 months, along with software and tools to make it all work together.

In a market where Cisco dominates every major subcategory, from basic LAN/WAN gear to wireless, security and voice over IP, shooting for second place won't be seen as a lack of ambition. But industry watchers say 3Com, along with its joint-venture partner Huawei Technologies , will face challenges in a crowded field.

The joint venture with Huawei is one of the key elements of 3Com's enterprise comeback bid, after the company stopped making high-end network gear in 2000 because of low profit margins. The Huawei partnership - announced in March and due to be complete in October - already has yielded its first product with 3Com's Switch 7700, a box competing with Cisco Catalyst 4000 series.

Claflin says 3Com will continue to launch products over the next year that will go up against Cisco's core Catalyst 6500 box and Cisco's WAN access routing products, such as its 2600-series routers.

He also is bullish about Huawei's Versatile Routing Platform (VRP), a competing software product - Cisco and others call it a clone - to Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS ).

Claflin adds that plans are in the works to incorporate VRP into existing 3Com products, as well as future 3Com/Huawei gear.

VRP is the focus of a suit Cisco filed against Huawei in February for what it claims were copyright and intellectual property infringements. Use of code from Cisco's IOS in Huawei's VRP software was among the charges. (Last month, when a critical flaw in IOS was found, several security firms warned that VRP-based Huawei routers might be susceptible to the same bug.) In its suit, Cisco sought to have Huawei products barred from sale in the U.S., but such an injunction was not granted. Huawei removed the disputed code from its software, but the case is ongoing.

Claflin says VRP violates no intellectual property rights and that the joint venture will push forward with product integration. He adds that other 3Com intellectual property, such as IP voice and its Extendable Resilient Networking - a high-speed switch interconnect and fail-over technology - also will be fitted into Huawei-based gear sold by the joint venture. Joint research-and-development efforts also are underway between the partners to develop gear that can handle storage traffic, such as iSCSI , as well as 10G Ethernet technology for connecting high-end switches.

It is with such joint R&D endeavors that Claflin says 3Com can leapfrog competitors.

Another advantage, Claflin says, is Huawei's China-based engineering team costs a fraction of what a U.S. company might pay its own R&D group. This results in more engineers working on projects at a lower cost than competitors, he says. This also allows switches and routers produced by the joint venture to be brought to market more quickly, with the finished products being more robust and reliable.

"[Huawei] can change the rules of the game," he says. "They have a cost structure that's fundamentally different than Western companies."

Citing a research report from Merrill Lynch, Claflin says there is no single supplier in the minds of enterprise customers that is a product-for-product alternative to Cisco.

"I view that as a positive," he says "because of all my competitors none has a clear advantage over us. But we've still got a lot of work to do."

Industry watchers are skeptical, putting emphasis on the work the company needs to do to achieve its goals.

"They'll have good opportunities outside North America," says Lawrence Orans, principal analyst with Gartner. "But here in North America, there's still a bad taste in the mouth of ex-3Com customers regarding the way they exited the [enterprise] business" in 2000. "They're going to have to prove themselves in places like the Asia-Pacific region and offer some jaw-dropping prices before making a big comeback here."

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