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Token-ring phaseout?

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The 14-year-old standards body that oversees token-ring development this week will decide its future. Its options aren't pretty.

The token ring 802.5 committee - which has seen its membership dwindle to just 10 members from a high of 120 a decade ago - will weigh whether or not to go into "hibernation," a move that would mean, among other things, that regular upgrades to existing standards would cease.

The group - which is gathering in Kolola, Hawaii - would also stop meeting face-to-face, and the focus of the committee would shift to maintenance issues. Even if the group votes to remain active, low participation would likely mean little new technology would ever be developed.

Token-ring proponents say hibernation would guarantee that token-ring users are denied access to the latest technologies. There is an installed base of some 30.5 million token-ring hub ports; there are an additional 1.7 million token-ring switch ports, according to a recent survey by the Dell'Oro Group, a Portola Valley, Calif., consultancy.

The end of the committee would have real and symbolic implications for a $1.4 billion-per-year industry - "802.5 is token ring," says John Messenger, a Madge Networks executive who represents the firm on the committee. Madge is one of the few token-ring vendors left. "In my view, hibernation of 802.5 would have a damaging effect on the token-ring industry."

But the token-ring industry has already been fatally damaged since Ethernet has become the technology of choice for LANs and, increasingly, WANs. The volume of token-ring ports shipped continues to decline, falling to an estimated 1.4 million ports in 1999 from 2.8 million ports in 1997 (see graphic). In the past year, an effort to grow fast token-ring products through the High-Speed Token Ring Alliance largely failed.

Within 802.5 there are only a few proposals left to finalize or ratify, including standards for Gigabit Token Ring and Dedicated Token Ring. Dedicated Token Ring lets users run token-ring packets to specific destinations in a point-to-point fashion, instead of in a ring, speeding performance.

With all of that in mind, Jim Carlo, chairman of the 802 organization, recently asked any 802 working groups with low attendance to consider going into hibernation - meaning future business would be conducted via e-mail. Bob Love, head of the 802.5 committee, ran the idea past other committee members, and the move to hibernation may be voted on this week.

However, Carlo points out that even in hibernation, participants could propose changes to the standard via e-mail. In fact, he says the 802.4 committee overseeing token bus development successfully proposed and voted on a connector standard while in hibernation.

But not everyone believes new technologies would be developed via e-mail. The regular meetings are an important part "of the opinion-forming and technical convergence process," Madge's Messenger says.

"I don't see that there is anything more for the token-ring committee to do," says Donald Czubek, president of Gen2 Ventures, a consultancy in Saratoga, Calif. "The bottom line is . . . there's no new business or any need for more standards."

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