New technologies tend to issue forth from agile start-ups unencumbered by installed bases and investments in existing product lines. LAN switching is a case in point. The first commercial Ethernet switch was prototyped in the Silicon Valley garage of entrepreneur Vinod Bhardwaj, now president and CEO of ControlNet, Inc., a high-speed net-working start-up in Campbell, Calif.
Flush from his stake in the initial public offering of former employer Excelan, Inc. (the TCP/IP specialist subsequently acquired by Novell, Inc.), Bhardwaj went out on his own in 1987 with an idea for boosting the capacity of what was then pre-10Base-T Ethernet. LANs were proliferating everywhere. Ethernet's bus architecture was holding things back.
Bhardwaj was working on a three-port device that would replace Ethernet's individual t-connectors when he had a flash: It was not the speed but rather the shared nature of Ethernet that was the problem. The three-port device simplified wiring but wouldn't really scale. The answer was a product that provided dedicated connections to each station and could eventually include an uplink to higher speed backbones.
When Bhardwaj pitched his invention to network companies, he was regarded, like many pioneers before him, as being afflicted with moonstruck madness. "They said, 'We've moved on to routing, and you're sending us back to bridging,' " he recalls.
Rejected but resolute, Bhardwaj left the established players to their 10Base-T committee battles and co-founded his own company with Larry Blair, now vice president of marketing for Redback Networks, Inc. in San Jose. Calif. They named the company after Bhardwaj's wife, Kalpana, whose name means "imagination" in Hindi.
The first order of business was to get rid of the "b-word," so the device - really the aggregation of a bunch of bridges - was designated an Ethernet switch. The product, dubbed the EtherSwitch, was encased in a traditional four-cornered box, but Kalpana marketers represented it on network diagrams as circular just to make it look different.
"FDDI and ATM were coming out at the same time that we were releasing this 'fancy bridge,' so we promoted it as just tactical," Blair says. Tactical indeed. It turned out to be the beginning of a paradigm shift that would enable frame-based networking to flourish into the 21st century. At the time, however, finding believers wasn't easy.
One well-known network industry executive was offered worldwide marketing rights to the EtherSwitch for $250,000. "But he turned us down three times," Blair recalls.
The Kalpana team was left to its own devices and in the summer of 1990 rolled out the first EtherSwitch. It had seven 10M bit/sec ports and sold for $11,500, about $1,650 per port. However, the price was less of an obstacle to prospective customers than the configuration changes to their networks.
"They were concerned about reliability and introducing a single point of failure," Bhardwaj remembers. "But once we got in the door, we could demonstrate a very visible improvement to network performance."
In fact, early product reviews characterized the EtherSwitch's speed as "stunning," and sales started to snowball. By 1992, vendors that had scoffed at the concept of Ethernet switching were lining up for OEM deals. Their customers were demanding "Kalpana-like" technology.
Kalpana passed into history in 1994 when it was swallowed up by router giant Cisco Systems, Inc. Ever the entrepreneur, Bhardwaj had left the company three months previously so he wouldn't have to sign a noncompete agreement.
What does he think about the revolution his EtherSwitch has wrought?
"Switching has progressed more than I originally thought, but it has also gotten a lot more complicated," he says. "Switches were throughput devices that were supposed to replace hubs, not routers. You keep them simple, simple, simple. Throw bandwidth at the problem, not complexity."