Analysis: The big networking debate: "I was framed"

Cabletron cried foul, Cisco stood proud and tall, while 3Com and Nortel Networks watched from the sidelines. Yes, this was the networking debate we had to have.

The local managing directors of Australia's networking titans took part in a head-to-head debate yesterday at Sydney's Networld+Interop exhibition and conference in front of a packed lunchtime crowd.

Moderated by veteran IT journalist Beverley Head, the debate pitted the wits of Cisco's Gary Jackson against 3Com's Gerhard Rumpff, Cabletron's Ian Fewtrell and Nortel Networks' Steve Rust.

If there is any serious message from the debate for the industry, it revolves around a few fronts. Internet Protocol is here to stay; the enterprise carrier business is big business; networking vendors face unrelenting and fierce competition, and users stand to benefit from competitive pricing. In fact, persistent rumours of heavy discounting struck a real chord with the panellists.

Cisco's Jackson admitted that at some point, the level of discounting needs to be brought under control.

"I think it's gone to crazy extents in the market place," he said.

However, Jackson maintained Cisco's aggressive commitment to capturing its competitors' market share, indicating the company will attack any market where it sees an opportunity.

Nortel Networks' Rust was more pragmatic: "In the end it's not sustainable. I see it just as a transitory thing."

3Com's Rumpff responded by observing his company is moving towards selling "solutions", particularly in the small to medium enterprise market.

However, the most incisive comment came from Cabletron's Fewtrell, who claimed "exceptionally aggressive" discounting is an immediate advantage for the user, but the long-term costs are unclear.

"What is the five-year cost of ownership of that [enterprise network] decision?"

However, for Cabletron there was a larger issue at stake. The company claimed the debate failed to address all the specific "tough" questions each of the participants had carefully prepared for each other.

"I was framed," Fewtrell quipped after the event.

But for the other vendors, it didn't matter. They all had a few laughs and enjoyed an appreciative crowd.

In the words of the moderator, the networking industry is a sport. "It's a sport we've all enjoyed," she said.

So the obvious question is 'who won the shootout?' If we leave all technical arguments aside and focus on the participants' ability to convince and entertain, it wasn't Nortel Networks and it wasn't 3Com - although both performers had merit.

Unfortunately for Cabletron, Fewtrell found himself caught off-guard by some tough questions. So that leaves Cisco. The competitors might call it a "winner by default". But at ComputerWorld, we suspect users might prefer to call it 'the ability to dominate'.

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