The Snowstorm That Ate ComNet

WASHINGTON (01/31/2000) - The weather outside was frightful, and the moods of most attendees at last week's ComNet 2000 weren't too delightful after a monster winter storm threw travel plans into disarray, forced the cancellation of long-planned show events and made a general mess of the area.

The annual conference usually draws between 50,000 and 60,000 attendees, but exhibitors estimated that only about half that number made it this year.

High-profile events, including Network World's Network Operating Systems Showdown and a keynote address from PSINet Inc. CEO Bill Schrader, had to be scratched due to executives stymied by the bad weather.

Still, the show went on. New products and services were introduced at a blizzard pace by the likes of Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp., both of which gave sneak peeks at unannounced enterprise network gear in their booths. Also on display were the latest in voice-over-IP wares, virtual private network products and services, as well as new optical switching technology from established companies and start-ups.

Keynoter John Roth, Nortel's CEO, was able to kick off the conference with a speech about the future of fiber-optic networks, and Novell Inc. CEO Eric Schmidt braved the elements in a private jet to keep his speaking engagement.

And attendees who braved the elements and slogged through the 20 inches of snow were treated like royalty on the show floor.

"This lets me spend time with the vendors," said Mike Hallman, a network administrator at international law firm LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in New York.

Hallman, who sampled the network operating system test results at Network World's NOS Showdown Lab, said he is looking to move from NetWare 4.1 to 5.1.

He likes Red Hat Linux, especially its low cost, but hasn't installed it because there aren't enough applications. As for Windows 2000 and Active Directory, Hallman says the Microsoft Corp. technologies aren't in his short-term plans. "Microsoft is trying to take a product that wasn't meant for directories and make it fit. There's just too much code," he said.

Many of the 450 exhibitors were busy estimating how much the inclement weather damaged their business goals at the show. A similar exercise was conducted by many at the industry's last big show - NetWorld+Interop 99 in Atlanta - which was hurt by a hurricane that swept across the East Coast.

At the Molex booth, the scene was grim. A representative for the fiber-optic connector manufacturer said the company usually gets 300 good leads from ComNet traffic. "We're not going to have a good turnout this time, though," she said.

Dennis Mick, business communications manager for 3M Co., said the company was counting on the show to make a splash with its Volition fiber product line.

"It's an important show for us," he said. "We've got a large space here and 25 team members. Low attendance hurts." Mick said his company counts on ComNet for military and government customer leads.

Even if attendees did get to the show, there was not always something for them to see.

Equipment from more than a few companies never made it to Washington. But in the case of one firm - Computing Edge - the stuffed owl tchotchkes did. So company executives were forced to give away stuffed birds from an empty booth.

The Internet Society booth was unmanned for a good portion of the show.

The blizzard, however, did not stop Cisco from quietly demonstrating some unannounced products in its booth.

The company had a 12-port 1000Base-TX copper Gigabit Ethernet module tucked inside its new Catalyst 4006 switch. The module, which is expected to ship in April, also features two Gigabit Interface Converter uplinks. Cisco has not yet determined pricing for the module.

Cisco also displayed a lower-end version of its Media Convergence Server (MCS), a key component of the company's voice, video and data convergence strategy.

The MCS 7820 is a Compaq server running Cisco's Call Manager 2.4 call-processing software. It does not, however, have the unified messaging or redundancy features of the higher-end MCS 7830 call-processing server. The MCS 7820 costs $8,000 and is shipping now, Cisco says.

In the Nortel booth, the firm was demonstrating a couple of unidentified modules from its Accelar 8600 Layer 3 data center switch, shipment of which has been delayed until the end of March. The switch was expected to ship last November. Nortel just started beta-testing the Accelar 8600 after a lengthy alpha testing period.

After the weather at this show, many attendees were ready for a lengthy period of hibernation.

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