A year later, 3Com users have overcome

When 3Com Corp. quit its enterprise chassis-based switching businesses a year ago this week, a loud, common cry was heard from the company's large user community - "What do we do now?"

Since the announcement, many users abandoned 3Com as a result, either in part or entirely. Others who bought brand-new chassis switches from 3Com at the time have elected to stick with the discontinued products for as long as they last.

At the time 3Com said it ended its large switch product lines because they were not generating enough revenue. The company said it wanted to pursue "high growth" markets such as consumer and small- to midsize-business networking products, as well as wireless LAN and service provider markets.

Although 3Com is out of the chassis switching business, it still managed to post 22 percent growth in the quarter with sales of its stackable switching products, according to the Dell'Oro Group. Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Inc.- once 3Com's bitter rivals in the large enterprise switch market - have experienced revenue slowdowns but both companies are still on top of the market, holding the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively.

3Com has had no easy time of it the past year either. The company recently announced it would cut 1,200 jobs, or about 10 percent of its work force. It issued a warning that revenue would fall short by about US$100 million for the third fiscal quarter, which ended March 2. After its announcement, the company's stock fell 17 percent.

Last year many network professionals first read in Computerworld's sister publication Network World about 3Com's decision to discontinue its CoreBuilder, PathBuilder and NetBuilder switch lines. The reaction was not very positive, as evident from a very active Network World Fusion online forum at the time:

"It is always nice to get screwed by a manufacturer," wrote Dale Strawford, a technical support specialist for the city of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.

"This appears to leave all of us who have invested heavily into the 3Com CoreBuilder strategy on very shaky ground," wrote George Stapp, a network professional for a Florida public school district.

For Tony Crognale, a network technician for Scottsdale Insurance, the 3Com news came at the worst possible time. His company had just finished upgrading his 18 CoreBuilder 9000 switches from ATM to Gigabit Ethernet while in the middle of a project to make Scottsdale a paperless office.

"When we had upgraded the [CoreBuilder] 9000s, we anticipated that 3Com would be in this business for a long time," Crognale says. "It wasn't but 30 to 60 days after we switched over from ATM that 3Com announced their plans. This threw a wrench in the works because we had long-term Layer 3 [Gigabit Ethernet] plans with 3Com."

With a complete ATM-to-Gigabit Ethernet upgrade already done, Crognale says, there was pressure from the company's management find a vendor that would not burn the company again.

"We were about to do our second complete technology swap-out in one year," he says. "We didn't have any room for failure anymore. The upper management level told us 'This stuff better work and it better be there for a while.'"Crognale's firm went with Extreme Networks Inc.'s BlackDiamond switch to replace its CoreBuilder infrastructure instead of going with larger vendors partly because Extreme was listed by 3Com as a partner for migrating off the CoreBuilder platform.

Crognale says his company was worried about Extreme's small size as a company at the time. The potential that the 5-year-old networking company would be bought out, thus causing more product line disruptions, was another small fear he had.

Once the Extreme network was up, Crognale says he found the company to be strong on support, and the numbers on his network proved it was a good choice.

"On the 3Com boxes, the reporting logs showed utilizations for our 9000s to be from 30 percent to 50 percent" of the switches' total capacity, he says. "With Extreme, we're below 10 percent."

While Crognale completely overhauled his backbone, he still uses some 3Com products, such as a PathBuilder WAN router and older 3Com stackable hubs for connecting workstations.

Other users felt the need to purge 3Com completely from their nets after the company's restructuring announcement last March. One such user was Widener University's director of network operations, Gary Habermann (www.nwfusion.com, DocFinder: 3424). The Chester, Pennsylvania, college, which also runs the network for the local Delaware County government, was a large 3Com shop, with CoreBuilders running ATM and Layer 3 Ethernet, as well as 3Com's NBX voice-over-IP system.

Habermann says he was surprised and disturbed by the 3Com equipment pullout; this is evident from his decision to throw out all the school's 3Com gear, including its SuperStack workgroup boxes, which are still active 3Com products.

Widener and Delaware County began installing an end-to-end network with Nortel Networks last August, brining in 30 Passport 8100 and 8600 backbone switches, along with 400 BayStack 460 workgroup switches to replace the SuperStacks. He is looking at replacing his NBX voice-over-IP system. Habermann's move is evidence 3Com also hurt its existing product lines when it decided to end its core switching business.

While users such as Habermann and Scottsdale Insurance's Crognale decided to ditch most, if not all, of their 3Com equipment, the city of Regina's Strawford decided to stick with the company, in spite of his disappointment.

"We found ourselves in the unenviable position of having spent significant [capital] on products that 3Com pulled the rug out from under," Strawford says. Strawford elected to stay with 3Com because the company said it would honor its service and support contracts on the city's CoreBuilder 9000 and four CoreBuilder 3500s.

"We are a 3Com shop and have had very few issues with their equipment. There was determined to be no value in the replacement or upgrade of this hardware," he says. Additionally, Strawford did not buy into 3Com's partnership with Extreme for a migration plan.

"3Com was offering a migration to Extreme Networks products; We were not prepared to switch over at that time to what was, to us, an unknown commodity," Strawford says.

Though he was jilted at first, Strawford is resigned to ride out the next 3 years with the discontinued gear. When those 3 years are up, who knows what company will step in to replace 3Com, he says.

"The way things are going in the industry," Strawford says, in 3 years "the choice of a new vendor might be made quite easy at that point if there are only a couple of vendors left standing."

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