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Does the Network Matter?

Networking vendors have a serious problem. That isn't something I'd normally be concerned about, but the problem is shared by the entire industry--including Network Magazine editors and enterprise network managers. It's that data networks have gone from an arcane discipline to a ubiquitous commodity. Before Wi-Fi, a router was a mysterious box accessible only to a select priesthood. Now it's cheaper than a trip to the movies and easier to program than a VCR.

So we look beyond networks. If you're a network architect, you broaden your skill set to cover more interesting areas of IT. If you're a magazine about networks, you do much the same (next month, we'll even be changing our name to something more buzzword-compliant). But if you're Cisco Systems, it's not so simple. You're tied so closely to networks that you can't just start selling servers and cell phones. The only way to expand your market is to expand the scope of the network itself.

Vendors should do this by scaling the network out to cover more people, but most are focused on scaling up the protocol stack, adding functionality. It started with convergence: Route voice and storage traffic through the same IP network as regular data. Then came wireless: Process IEEE 802.11 packets in the wiring closet, not on an access point. Now Cisco is looking to applications themselves: Lighten the load on the mainframe by parsing content on a switch. It's gone from thin access points to a thin data center--all dependent on a big, fat, feature-bloated network.

DARK CLOUDS