Then there was one -- WAN/LAN combo arrives

While every enterprise branch office requires LAN and WAN features, an inspection of the communications closet almost always reveals that separate boxes are implemented for each. Adtran Inc. is trying to change that.

In a flurry of branch-office productivity by the vendors, Adtran joined the ranks of those that have had us validate their branch-office offering head-to-head against Cisco Systems Inc.'s. The company's NetVanta 1224R offers a full-fledged router and LAN switch in a 1U box. It's unique, but will it fly?

Because these devices "talk" using Ethernet, there is no reason that they have to be boxed together or tightly coupled in any way. On the other hand, there is nothing that stands in the way of them being integrated, either. There are the obvious advantages of reduced footprint, integrated management but, if it is such a great idea, one might ask, why is Adtran, an admitted "follower," one of the first to do it for the enterprise?

Well, historically, there's been a conscious choice by many vendors to "stop at the edge" and leave the WAN to others.

While the existence of stacks of WAN protocol building blocks has made the job easier today, vendors in the mid- to late 1990s venturing into the WAN had to be content with a significant amount of development that had little in common with what they were doing on the LAN.

A combination of aggressive goals -- in features to implement and units sold -- caused many vendors, especially start-ups, to decide that the WAN wasn't worth the trouble. After all, a branch office might need dozens of LAN ports but usually could get by with just one WAN port. And, unless you could be sure of providing the headquarters side of the WAN connection, you could find yourself embroiled in finger-pointing with the likes of Cisco or Nortel Networks Corp. whenever a WAN glitch occurred.

So if you look at companies such as Foundry Networks Inc. and Extreme Networks Inc., and, earlier companies like Madge Networks Inc., they simply chose not to play in the WAN arena. So given that different companies typically provided the LAN and the WAN gear -- or different divisions of major players -- the "separate box" syndrome became the "standard."

Ironically, integrated LAN/WAN boxes are nothing new -- and actually thrive -- but in a different arena. Virtually all of the small office/home office gear you encounter today and a lot of low-end business "routers" provide LAN switch ports. It just hasn't become de rigueur in the enterprise.

If Adtran is successful in gaining not only market share against Cisco but acceptance of the integrated switch/router, others surely will follow.

For companies such as 3Com Corp. that make enterprise-class gear in both categories, integration should be a snap. For companies such as Larscom Inc. and Tasman Networks Inc. that are really focused on the WAN, the job would be a bit harder. And they might be faced with a credibility gap, given their lack of presence in the LAN switching space.

For other edge switch vendors a strong acceptance of integrated LAN/WAN would cause them to divert resources from previously defined goals to build a hybrid offering.

For managers of branch-office networks, "roll up" of features -- LAN/WAN, security suites, etc. -- can simplify their lives. That's the theory, at least. This year we've got a chance to see how it works in practice.

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

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