Dr Marc Willebeek-LeMair, chief technical officer of networking company 3Com, is used to wrestling with weighty problems. After all, the man spent a decade at IBM’s T J Watson Research Centre working on so-called intelligent infrastructure technologies and has done research on everything from distributed computing and high-speed networking technologies to network processors and management systems. So when Willebeek-LeMair talks about the problems facing the enterprise networking industry, people tend to listen.
As 3Com’s CTO sees it, enterprise networking is at an inflection point as an earlier generation of networking gear focused on “moving data from point A to point B” fades into the background.
Of course, moving data from A to B is what made 3Com and its co-founder, Robert Metcalfe, famous. But by the time Willebeek-LeMair joined the company, 3Com had ceded much of its market to companies such as Cisco and Juniper, which dominate high-end switches and routers.
Willebeek-LeMair is old enough to remember when innovations in what he terms the “connectivity plane” were all the rage, but he had the vision to see beyond the horizon to the potential of what he calls the “control plane” — a layer of intelligent functions such as security, access control, and content management — that sits atop the connectivity plane and is applied to data as it moves across a network.
Since coming to 3Com with its acquisition of TippingPoint in 2005 and taking the CTO job shortly after, Willebeek-LeMair has been steadily pushing his company to address the reality of “biplanar networks” and, especially, to be a player on the “control plane”, where the action is.
“Moving data from point A to point B is nice, but intelligent functions that work on data as it flows is where the excitement is,” he says. “Organisations are looking at ways to improve and enhance the value of their networks for business needs by overlaying new types of networking gear.”
TippingPoint’s IPS hardware was 3Com’s first play in the control plane. But IPS is just one application. NAC (network admission control), application performance and acceleration, and user authentication, are all areas where 3Com and other networking vendors will compete, he says.
Control-plane technology, for deep packet classification and policy enforcement for security and application performance, will soon be as common as the routers and switches that make up the connectivity plane, he says. To that end, 3Com under Willebeek-LeMair and CEO R Scott Murray has been working to drive down the price of standard networking gear through H3C, its joint venture with Chinese networking infrastructure vendor Huawei.
3Com has also introduced Intelligent Network Control (INC), an open, multi-vendor architecture that allows third parties to use an API to allow customers to add control-plane functions.
Willebeek-LeMair says that he wants to take a page out of 3Com’s history, spurring growth of control-plane applications by remaining agnostic about the underlying technology, as it did with its Ethernet technology.
Regardless of the success or failure of these initiatives, Willebeek-LeMair’s biggest accomplishment may be turning 3Com’s eyes back on the future, after years spent looking over its shoulder at forays by Cisco and others.
“I feel good about our vision. I think we’ve identified where we want to go. There’s always the opportunity to ask, ‘Are we focused well enough?’ But we’ve made big steps.”