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Critics question NIA's credibility

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Two weeks from its first anniversary, the Network Interoperability Alliance (NIA) is struggling to win credibility.

The group was formed by IBM, 3Com Corp. and Bay Networks, Inc. to push multivendor interoperability among internetwork products. But it is still viewed as a private club formed to snub Cisco Systems, Inc., the dominant player in the market. Even though the NIA has completed a couple of interoperability tests, with a few more slated for this year, users and analysts said the testing is largely irrelevant without participation by Cisco and other vendors.

"NIA is mostly smoke," said Don Miller, an analyst at Dataquest, Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "There are too few vendors participating in this thing for it to really count."

"I don't think the NIA is effective, since vendors like Cisco are missing," said a net manager from a resort in the Northeast that last year publicly endorsed the NIA . . . before adding lots of Cisco gear to its net. "We have a multivendor environment, and unless all of those vendors participate in the NIA, it doesn't do much for me."

The NIA's credibility is also in question because the group has reversed its stance on ATM routing and, according to some members, backed off plans to define a framework for interoperability. Analysts also said NIA companies lack unity.

And in an indication of just how unimportant this group may be, some companies listed as members on the NIA Web site claimed they are not members at all. Also, one high-ranking Bay official said the NIA is not addressing what customers want.

All this is transpiring while the NIA maintains a consciously low profile. Meanwhile, analysts poke away at the group, looking for signs of life.

"[The NIA has] a very low pulse," according to Nick Lippis, president of Strategic Networks Consulting, Inc. in Rockland, Mass., who has overseen some of the NIA's testing at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "The NIA has not taken the industry by storm, it's not making a major impact in purchasing decisions, and the overall effectiveness has been marginal, at best."

NIA's reason for being

Just what is the NIA's raison d'etre?

The group burst onto the scene May 20, 1996, with much fanfare, as chief executives from the three founding companies rammed a stake into the ground for open, interoperable networking. The group assembled to help users simplify, standardize and enhance LAN deployment through open, common product interoperability specifications and testing.

The NIA is seeking to ease integration of desktops with the edge and core of the network, areas where founders 3Com, IBM and Bay have market leadership or a sizable presence.

The NIA said it would achieve its objectives by defining an open "system framework" of standards by which vendors could test their products for interoperability. This framework would include "key" technologies from the three founders' switched internetwork architectures: 3Com's interpretation of the IEEE 802.1p and 802.1q virtual LAN standards, Bay's work on Integrated Private Network-to-Network Interface (I-PNNI) for ATM routing and IBM's zero-hop routing for interconnecting subnets.

The group would also conduct interoperability testing and submit specifications to standards bodies for industrywide adoption.

Since its formation, the group has completed a couple of ATM interoperability tests on equipment from the founders and four other "members" - First Virtual Corp., Madge Networks, Inc., U.S. Robotics, Inc. and Xylan Corp. The NIA has two more tests planned for this year.

Other than that, things have been quiet. The NIA is not very proactive about publicizing its work. That may be because the stake it put in the ground last year has loosened up considerably.

Is there a framework or not?

Depending on who you talk to at the NIA, the system framework is either complete or in the trash. IBM said the interoperability testing done to date was based on the framework.

"Not only was it important that [testing] was operating within the framework that was defined, [but testing had to go beyond the framework since] many of our customers have variations of that or are not in a pure environment as such, said Lauri Gibson, business executive for strategy and alliance at IBM, and the companys NIA representative.

But 3Com says the framework was abandoned.

"As we expand the membership of the NIA, it better serves the customer to focus on interoperability more than creating an overarching framework," said Mike Bergines, manager of systems marketing at 3Com and the company's NIA representative.

Bay said the NIA is updating the framework, but focusing more on interoperability testing. When it comes to testing, the founders are all upbeat on what they have accomplished, but analysts are split on the impact.

One of the by-products of the testing is the NIA companies are now familiar with one anothers' products, said Lyndon Ong, product development manager at Bay. "As customers come to us with interoperability problems, we have the right contacts and experience to go out and quickly identify what the problems are."

But there is still a long way to go. The tests did not include 802.1p and 802.1q, I-PNNI and next-hop routing - the technologies cited by the founders as key to their original goal. The reason for this, Ong said, is that these technologies are not stable enough yet to be implemented in products; the NIA only tests shipping products, he said.

Then there is the issue of I-PNNI and its alternative, Multi-Protocol Over ATM (MPOA), or the "exploded router." Last year, the NIA said MPOA was complex, difficult to push through the standards process and "not critical to this alliance." Now that MPOA has progressed further through the standards than I-PNNI, the NIA is singing a different tune. And at least three NIA firms are participating in an MPOA interoperability demonstration at Net- World+Interop 97 this week.

"There's definitely a feeling that [MPOA] is an area that we're going to want to include in our testing in the future," Bay's Ong said.

Ong said the updated NIA framework will include MPOA. But 3Com has not exactly embraced MPOA.

In an interview with Network World earlier this year, Floyd Backes, director of product and strategy architecture at 3Com, said he is not going to base 3Com's strategy on MPOA, although the company will support it if customers want it.

"MPOA makes things way too expensive because it requires all the functionality of a Layer 3 router in the wiring closet," Backes said. "Edge devices need to be cheap, which is why we like [3Com's] Fast IP."

Analysts said this shows a lack of unity among NIA members.

"It seems like different groups within [the NIA] are operating independently," said John McConnell, president of McConnell Consulting, Inc. in Boulder, Colo.

Indeed, NIA seems to be a low priority or afterthought with some "member" companies. Madge claimed it is not a member of the NIA even though the NIA Web site indicates that it is. And First Virtual said it became a member because it has business ties with Bay and IBM.

Even a high-level Bay official questioned the NIA's intent. Bay's Vice President of Architecture Bill Hawe last month told Network World the group has "drifted" and is not "exactly what the customers are looking for."

What could save the NIA? Broader membership that includes Cisco, and a branding and certification program.

"The true tale of success would be when companies sending out RFPs require NIA-compliance as a check-off item. But they're so far away from that, Lippis said.

Indeed they are. NIA officials said branding and certification are not near-future goals. They insisted that their group is open to all comers, including Cisco.

Cisco, meanwhile, said the NIA's efforts are redundant with those of other standards groups. Also, Cisco has heard no demands from users to join the NIA, a Cisco spokesperson said.


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