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3Com is back: What next?

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Comment Heroic comebacks are something of a rarity in the high technology industry. Companies that fall from grace disappear, either through bankruptcy or absorption into larger players. However, the switching market has a couple of interesting examples of long-established players that may be in a position to buck the trend.

Enterasys, previously the enterprise arm of Cabletron, has been bought by a private equity company, which, so far, has been good on its word that it plans to grow the company, rather than asset-strip it. The second example I have in mind is 3Com Corporation.

3Com is re-emerging from a period flying under the radar servicing its strong SMB customer base through a network of channel partners. There are two pillars to 3Com's revival, the first is its joint development relationship with the Chinese company Huawei, and the second is its acquisition of IDS/IPS vendor, TippingPoint.

Chinese company Huawei may be an unfamiliar name to many in the enterprise market. The company has built its reputation on the development of cost-effective carrier data communications equipment, and has increasingly proved itself an effective competitor, being selected ahead of more established companies like Marconi, for example, as a supplier to BT's 21st Century Network project. Through its joint development relationship, 3Com gained access to Huawei's considerable R&D capability, as well as its ability to engineer and build competitive priced network hardware, and its extremely fast product development cycles.

So, far from being the beginning of the end for 3Com, the joint venture helped put the company back on its feet as a serious player in its core SMB market, and to give it the confidence to exercise an option to buy Huawei out of the contract. 3Com is in final negotiations to buy the joint venture, which will leave it in possession of some state-of-the-art networking kit. The product range includes stackable and modular switches including products for emerging 10 gigabit Ethernet market that offer layer 2-4 switching with Power Over Ethernet (POE) options.

Tipping Point provides Tipping Point

Secondly, TippingPoint is widely acknowledged as a leader in the IDS/IPS market. This is due to its multi-layered protection, and the use of proprietary ASICs which allow it to operate inline at wire speed on critical portions of the network. TippingPoint also has a good reputation when it comes to false positives, often the bane of IT administrators' lives. Good as it might be from a technology standpoint however, 3Com's acquisition of the company at the end of 2004 may have been viewed as merely adding to its collection of network components, and given 3Com's strategy of targeting the SMB market, rather a strange decision.

So, what gives? What makes the difference is the way that 3Com has integrated TippingPoint with its other product lines to offer some enterprise-class offerings beyond the simple point security solution that they acquired. The core idea is using the performance of the TippingPoint product to manage the key area of post-admission control in the currently hot market space of Network Admission Control (NAC). Because the TippingPoint product works at wire speed, it can be placed into a network upstream from existing switches and monitor and control the traffic moving across them. Working in conjunction with core network components and management software this approach can bring both traffic management and network protection into an environment without the need for an expensive fork lift upgrade.

Companies that are reviewing their approach to security and NAC will probably want to look at the Tipping Point solution because of its leadership position, but may also wish to examine the opportunities it presents for cost effective integration with existing network components to improve traffic management and post-admission control. Following on from that, 3Com's new line of Huawei-developed switches may present themselves as viable components in any planned refresh of an enterprise's switching architecture.

It remains to be seen if such initiatives do put the company back on the map as a serious enterprise player, but 3Com is emerging from the doldrums as a stronger company in its core SMB market, and is showing no signs of wanting to roll over and die.

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