3Com jumps back into router arena

FRAMINGHAM (09/26/2003) - 3Com Corp. will revive another of its previously abandoned enterprise network lines this week as it launches a series of wide area network (WAN) routers for enterprise branch and central offices.

The 3Com Router 5000 series is designed to connect corporate sites, from small branch to large regional offices, with a variety of WAN links. The gear is also part of 3Com's strategy to offer a complete network product menu - from network interface cards to switches and routers, Internet Protocol (IP) telephony and security gear - with a common management platform across the portfolio.

Observers say the router launch is a good step in 3Com's road back into large corporate networks, although image challenges linger because of the company's retreat from that market several years back.

In addition to supporting a variety of WAN options, such as T-1, frame relay and Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), the new 5000 series boxes also include integrated IP Security VPN functionality, and firewall capabilities with stateful packet inspection and traffic filtering. 3Com says quality of service also has been added into the 5000 series router software, letting delay-sensitive WAN traffic - such as voice over IP - be tagged and prioritized.

The new product line includes the 5009, with a single WAN interface module slot for small branch offices, the three-slot 5231 for regional offices, and four-slot 5640 and eight-slot 5680 for consolidating WAN links at a company's headquarters. WAN modules for the 5000 series include full and fractional T-1/E-1, Primary Rate Interface, ISDN and 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet products. All 5000 series modules are interchangeable.

The 5000 series launch is a reprise of 3Com's earlier PathBuilder product line, which included WAN routing, VPN and firewall products for midsize and large organizations. This line was discontinued in 2000, along with 3Com's CoreBuilder LAN switching line.

One user of 3Com's old PathBuilder routers, Jevic Transportation Inc. of Delanco, New Jersey, plans to install the 5000 series routers in its 12 offices nationwide.

"We'd been using the older 3Com routers after they discontinued the product, and they worked fine for us," says Anthony Holden, senior datacom analyst for Jevic, which operates a cross-country freight delivery service. "3Com kept giving us good support for those products."

The 5000 series boxes will connect Jevic sites via point-to-point T-1 connections. Jevic uses its WAN to run an application that syncs up freight delivery information in real time.

The 5000 series routers are resold from Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. The 5000 is based on Huawei's Quidway WAN routers, which have been sold in Asia for the past two years with an installed base of about 160,000 units, according to 3Com. 3Com this March announced a joint venture with Huawei, which let it sell 3Com-branded chassis switches and routers.

Shortly before the joint venture was announced, Cisco Systems Inc. sued Huawei, saying the company violated Cisco intellectual property and copyrights. A federal court in June ruled that Huawei must remove code similar to Cisco's IOS code from its products and stop distributing product manuals that are similar to Cisco's. 3Com says the 5000 series does not violate any Cisco intellectual property.

In launching a line of routers, 3Com says it hopes to attract enterprise network customers looking for an alternative to Cisco, which dominates the enterprise access router market with about 70 percent market share.

"3Com has made its bet, and that's to become a major enterprise player again," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with The Yankee Group. And with the 5000 series release, he says, "this might work. There isn't much out there to challenge Cisco in the router market. At least this is an alternative." Kerravala says 3Com's biggest challenge will be getting back on buyers' short lists of end-to-end vendors. "3Com didn't burn its bridges with large enterprise customers, but it did singe them," he says.

3Com says its 5000 series gear will be priced at about 30% to 50% less than comparably equipped Cisco routers. Along with underselling Cisco, another part of 3Com's enterprise strategy is to offer an end-to-end network management system and feature set. This includes the 3Com Network Administrator software, which it also launched this week. The management application lets administrators configure and monitor both Huawei-based 3Com gear, such as the Switch 7700 and the Router 5000 series, and existing SuperStack LAN and NBX IP telephony gear.

The 3Com 5009 is priced at US$1,400, and the 5231 is priced at $2,500. The 5640 and 5680 cost $4,000 and $6,500, respectively. All hardware will be available next month. The 3Com Network Administrator is expected to ship in November for $5,000.

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