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Do HP, 3Com value claims trump Cisco?

Cisco's dominance in enterprise switching is legend, but HP and 3Com have put together compelling product portfolios and value stories that add up to the first real competition the switch king has faced in years, and buyers are beginning to pay attention.

Quinnipiac University on Connecticut, a Cisco shop, recently upgraded its network with gear from 3Com. “Several of my peers were curious as to why we left the mother ship … but it all fits into a risk-reward ratio,” says Fred Tarca, associate vice president of information services. “We stuck with our fundamental principles of wanting a good product at the right price that is supportable, with a team and a company to back it up. Those requirements were met by 3Com.”

Ron Sege, president and CEO of 3Com, says the H3C enterprise equipment his company is bringing out of China was built from the ground up in the last four years, using the latest ASIC and other technology advances.

And the company is trying to use its success in China to convince domestic buyers to give it another chance after it pulled out of the North American enterprise market twice. “We already have a million routers installed in China, half a million switches, and common management for the whole range of gear,” Sege says.

In fact, China uses the H3C equipment to power eight out of 12 national backbones, including its transportation, education and energy networks, Sege says. “We're selling value in most cases, but value based on cost to operate.,” he says. “Lower cost up front, less expensive to operate over time and higher performance to boot.”

But will value be enough? Cisco has more than 70% of the market and says, no matter how individual boxes line up, its ace in the hole is low total cost of ownership, something it achieves with its cohesive, overarching product architecture.

To see if the value stories hold water we started by examining product cost and found that in some cases – not all – switches from HP and 3Com do cost considerably less than comparable Cisco offerings, at least on a starting list price level. For instance, 3Com's S7500E and S7900E modular multilayer 10G and Gigabit switches cost $8,000 less than Cisco's Catalyst 6500.

But it is, of course, hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison. Cisco says the Catalyst 6500 supports three times as many 10G Ethernet ports than 3Com does on the 7500E and 7900E. But 3Com claims the VSS1440 version of Cisco's Catalyst 6500, which Cisco says takes the system's switching capacity to 1.44Tbps, is mostly marketing rhetoric. “Although claiming 1400 Gbps, (it) is mostly a redundancy scheme,” says Dominic Wilde, 3Com's senior director of Global Product Line Marketing for Networking Products. “It does not increase bandwidth as only one supervisor is active.”

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