Column: Token-Ring as Good as Dead

Horror cult filmmaker George S. Romero might be the perfect marketing pitchman for the technological zombie that is high-speed token-ring.

The director who gave the world the classic Night of the Living Dead, plus follow-ups Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, might want to cast the new token-ring in a next installment to the franchise -- something called Connectivity for the Living Dead.

Certainly a film version of what amounts to a dead networking solution sounds a lot more appealing than actually implementing technology that offers a meaningless high-speed injection to an IT corpse.

All kidding aside, you have to seriously question the significance of a high-speed alternative for a networking technology whose time has come and gone? Minuscule market share aside, token-ring only lives today to serve an existing but always-declining base of users, most of whom didn't have much choice in the first place, having been transitioned to the technology by IBM Corp. years ago.

Nobody builds new token-ring network infrastructures any more and you'd be hard pressed to find a network service provider who is inclined to do such an implementation.

Even convincing a major services company to offer service to an existing token-ring infrastructure is getting tougher. A recent discussion with a representative from one major Canadian network services organization revealed the company frankly isn't at all interested in the work and typically attempts to steer token-ring business elsewhere.

Many other services companies validate the technology's declining importance, saying they implement more Asynchronous Transfer Mode than token-ring LANs. Try to find one service company who sees a solid future for the technology.

Even vendors who once provided token-ring hardware are rejecting the high-speed option. Among the key network hardware companies, only 3Com still maintains what only amounts to a marginal commitment and that company's market share has been static at best for the past couple of years.

The king of data networking, Cisco, this year opted out of the consortium working to define a standard around a high-speed option and recently announced a high-speed Ethernet product set designed to ramp existing token-ring users up to the faster and cheaper alternative.

Of course, token-ring evangelists -- the likes of Olicom and Madge -- will tell you that a high-speed token-ring brings new life to the technology. But these diehards are flogging the proverbial dead horse.

The advent of faster and cheaper Ethernet alternatives introduced earlier in the decade effectively killed token-ring's future.

It's been suggested that if a faster token-ring had emerged five years ago, it may have staved off terminal decline for at least a few more years, but it's unlikely. Token-ring vendors have long insisted there was ample capacity in most token-ring networks and, hence, no reason to create something faster until only recently.

But buying into that logic begs the question: What then has caused the mass migration away from token-ring if not a need for speed? The answer, if not performance, is certainly price.

If it had been more affordable, odds are that token-ring would have flourished and made a serious run at Ethernet for the ubiquity crown. Over the years, price points on Ethernet have been driven so low that today literally anyone can afford to build a network with it. Not so with token-ring, which still remains a premium-priced option. This combination of expensive network technology and no speed enhancement created a recipe for disaster.

Yes, token-ring still drives some significant mission-critical business. But are these same users likely to reinvest when the time comes to drive out a new generation of applications or retrofit their network infrastructures? The bets are on "no."

None would argue against the fact that token-ring is superior technology. But if IT history has taught us anything it is that the best technology doesn't necessarily win. That was proven by the success of the PC and is being reinforced by token-ring.

Would anything short of price cuts that could put token-ring in a cost line similar to or less than comparable Ethernet technologies be enough to bring the technology back to life? Not likely, since so many have turned away.

High-speed token-ring is no life extender for the technology. If anything, it only prolongs death.

(McLean is research manager, network support and integration services, for IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.)

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