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Thu 1 Feb 2007 10:27 AM

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Stand up and be counted

With pre-n wireless products appearing and offering little in the way of compatibility guarantees, what are some of the current issues in the world of network standards?

Network standards are a tricky issue; every vendor claims to support them, users claim to want them, bodies spring up to develop them. Companies such as Extreme Networks make their way in the world as niche players, and are reliant on other vendors supporting open and accessible standards in order to allow interoperability.

"Standards are key to Extreme's value proposition - we need standards to work with other vendors," says Chris Moore, regional director for Extreme in the Middle East. "That's why you'll also find Extreme on standards bodies - for the good of the standards, but also for the good of Extreme."

This is the other side of standards - an organisation which can successfully develop an in-house standard into a recognised industry standard can be in a strong position in the market - Intel is currently enjoying such a position with its championing of WiMax. And from the point of view of a standard, it can be no bad thing to have a motivated driver pushing a standard forward.

WiMax is a current example of standards processes working well - Intel and the WiMax Forum have pushed bodies such as IEEE and ITU to ratify the standard quickly, in order to cut the time-to-market for WiMax products. But even faster than WiMax came the development of 802.11 - Wi-Fi.

First ratified in 1997, 802.11 spawned 802.11a and 802.11b within two years, opening up a whole new market for wireless devices which has since reached near-ubiquity in laptops, and is gaining ground in other mobile devices as well. The move to 802.11g and significant speed increases took another four years, thanks to wrangling about interoperability with older ‘b' products, but the move to 802.11n is set to stretch well into 2008 - the fifth year since ‘g' was ratified.

But perceived market pressure for n-capable products has led a number of manufacturers to release pre-n offerings which, despite assurances, offer no firm guarantees of interoperability with future ‘n' products, or other manufacturer's pre-n systems. Worse, some pre-n products stand accused of interfering with existing ‘b' and ‘g' networks.

Peter Crowcombe, EMEA enterprise marketing director for Juniper Networks, offers his analysis of the pre-n situation: "I remember before twisted pair, when it was the next big thing - we had pre twisted pair products from 3Com, which did prove to be compatible. The situation with pre-n comes out of the 802.11 standard already having a lot of standard work in place, and having a great deal of success. What tends to happen is more and more vendors have a vested interest in influencing the direction the standard takes.

"The gap between creation of a draft standard and final ratification opens up a window for vendors to offer pre-standard products and buyers to gain commercial advantage - but at a risk," adds Crowcombe. "I think all you can do is research, work with whichever vendor you trust, and really nail them down on the compatibility issue. Ultimately it's a commercial decision - if a vendor warrants a product to be compatible, then they have to stand by that, even if it means making some fairly significant upgrades."

The 12,000 official comments on one draft of 802.11n last year from vendors and other interested parties bears out Crowcombe's point about vendors wanting to influence the final standard. Pre-n wireless is one case of standards failing to produce the desired result - that of harmony and ease-of-use - but it is not unique. Similar arguments currently surround high-speed Ethernet protocols.

One area where standards are proving not so much a contentious but a practical issue is security. Security solutions such as intrusion detection and prevention systems rely on hackers not knowing the inner workings of the system. By definition they are proprietary - publishing exactly how an IPS appliance blocks attacks invites hackers to circumvent them.

But many enterprises are now adopting a multi-vendor security strategy, to make sure they are not vulnerable to attacks to penetrate one vendor's systems. Given this, IT infrastructures now have to accommodate firewalls, IPS appliances, anti-virus and anti-spam systems from a range of suppliers which are often quite definitely competing; the scope for confusion among several proprietary devices is potentially considerable.

This is where initiatives such as the Trusted Computing Group (TCG) are working to eliminate confusion and conflict. TCG is a vendor-led consortium, founded by companies such as HP, Sun, Intel and AMD, and counting most of the major networking and IT vendors among its ranks (including both Extreme and Juniper).

Its stated goal is "to develop and support open industry specifications for trusted computing across multiple platform types" - in other words, eliminate conflict between competing devices in an IT setup as an attack vector for hackers to exploit. By standardising how devices talk to each other, TCG's initiative may be able to preserve the proprietary cores of security systems, while making their external communications more sociable, in network terms at least.

This level of effort from vendors is all well and good, but according to some in the networking industry, significant numbers of end users are not particularly interested in standards, but instead are happy to swallow a vendor line. When coming from other vendors, this statement can seem a little disingenuous - but this is exactly what many vendors accuse certain competitors of being.

"Some of the IT managers do understand the technology - they go right down to the bottom, and ask up to RFC level if something is compatible; they will look at something in detail," comments Louis Hembold, senior technical consultant, ISE, at HP ProCurve. "Then you get IT managers that have been led by the nose - we've seen requests which read as if they've come straight off the competitor's spec sheet. And when you read this three times for the same SOC, then you know - it's just been put in there for appearance. And you're looking at some of the requests and thinking ‘they're never going to use this'."

As Hembold and other vendors comment, though, while many IT managers can initially regard standards as a minor consideration when buying infrastructure components, this view soon changes if the enterprise finds itself locked in to one supplier.

“If a vendor warrants a product to be compatible, then they have to stand by that, even if it means making some fairly significant upgrades.”
“You get some IT managers that have been led by the nose – we’ve seen requests which read as if they’ve come straight off the competitor’s spec sheet.”

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