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Cisco bails on fast token ring

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Citing a lack of market demand for 100M bit/sec token-ring LANs, Cisco Systems, Inc. last week withdrew from the High-Speed Token Ring Alliance (HSTRA).

The alliance, a vendor group formed last summer largely to raise user awareness rather than develop technical specifications, originally consisted of token-ring leaders IBM, Madge Networks, Inc. and five other companies.

"With our customers, we have found very little interest in High-Speed Token Ring," said Randall Campbell, a Cisco product manager. Customers are interested in bridging existing token-ring LANs with higher-speed Ethernet and ATM networks, Campbell said.

With that, Cisco plans to tunnel token-ring frames through 100M bit/sec Fast Ethernet links using its InterSwitch Link (ISL) protocol, Campbell said. ISL is Cisco's proprietary virtual LAN trunking protocol for Fast Ethernet.

For ATM, Cisco will continue to offer token-ring LAN Emulation products. And Cisco will continue to participate in the IEEE 802.5 committee that mandates token-ring standards. Campbell said Cisco will develop 802.5-compliant HSTR products if a market develops.

Cisco's departure from the HSTRA will have no impact on the IEEE's 802.5 standards work around High-Speed Token Ring, according to Robert Love, chairman of the IEEE 802.5 committee. He expects the standard to be ratified this summer.

Indeed, all Cisco risks by leaving the HSTRA is a public relations hit; the real work on the standard is being done within the IEEE, members said. Still, some believe Cisco's withdrawal from the alliance can only hurt the HSTR effort.

"That's not good," said Daniel Long, network and telecommunications analyst at Collier County Public Schools, in Florida. "We're getting ready to go out on bids for new routers, and that's one of the specifications that we're going to require."

Bad intentions

Others say Cisco's departure connotes nefarious intentions.

"Cisco is attempting to torpedo multivendor, industry-standard HSTR efforts and promote, instead, the Cisco proprietary ISL technology," said Kevin Tolly, president of The Tolly Group, a catalyst behind the formation of the HSTRA. "Cisco has decided to make a preemptive strike against those vendors in an attempt to eliminate IEEE 802.5 HSTR from serious consideration by network managers and make ISL a de facto industry standard."

"They obviously do not stand behind their token-ring customers; [they] want to lock them into proprietary solutions," said Jorgen Hog, vice president of network product marketing for HSTRA member Olicom, Inc., a token-ring development partner of Cisco's.

Others, though, said Cisco's move is indicative of business reality.

"The question is whether Cisco's withdrawal will have any effect on the market [for High-Speed Token Ring]," said David Passmore, president of NetReference, Inc., in Sterling, Va. "I think the answer is no, because there was no market to start with."

Some HSTRA members seem to support Passmore's view. Bay Networks, Inc. is holding off on product development until a market emerges, said Jeff Clowers, token-ring switching product line manager. And 3Com Corp. last week played up its ability to transmit token-ring frames at 100M bit/sec over Fast Ethernet using the IEEE 802.1Q virtual LAN standard - a method that's virtually identical to Cisco's.

Conversely, IBM, Madge, Olicom, Inc. and Xylan Corp. are actively developing HSTR-compliant products, officials from those companies said.

IBM is developing 100M bit/sec token-ring network interface cards for release in the third quarter, and modules for the 8260, 8265 and 8270 hubs and switches for early 1999, said Dave Olechovsky, token-ring product line manager at IBM and HSTRA chairman. Madge said it will show HSTR switches and adapters at NetWorld+Interop 98 next month in Las Vegas and ship the products by year-end.

Aside from Olicom, HSTRA members largely shrugged off Cisco's defection.

"I hate to see them drop out because they've been helpful," Olechovsky said.

Olechovsky said Cisco did not try to force ISL upon the alliance: "They were really very helpful in terms of us pursuing a native [token-ring] standard" as well as an encapsulated approach like ISL, he said.

Cisco does not have as much at stake in token-ring as the other HSTRA members do.

Of the $141.8 million in worldwide switched token ring revenue for 1997, Bay, Madge, Xylan and IBM accounted for 66% of the market, according to the Dell'Oro Group of Portola Valley, Calif. Cisco had a 10.6% share, while Olicom and 3Com grabbed 7.6% and 5.5%, respectively.

Cisco is the second company to defect from the HSTRA. Texas Instruments, Inc. backed out last fall (NW, Oct. 6, 1997, page 38).

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