3Com software-based IP switch being tested

A high-end, software-based IP switch from 3Com Corp. is being tested by four large companies for general release in August as part of the network device maker's efforts to re-establish itself in the enterprise marketplace.

Last week, 3Com CEO Bruce Claflin said the switch will scale to hundreds of thousands of users, compared with the hundreds supported by the company's existing NBX line. The software switch, or "softswitch," should help Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com woo back enterprise customers that were abandoned three years ago, Claflin said. (see story) 3Com declined to identify the companies testing the switch.

The softswitch will handle more than voice traffic, including "applications and services that an IP infrastructure can allow you to deliver that are not possible or practical in a traditional telephone environment," Claflin said.

"If you try to sell VOIP to an enterprise today and justify it on the value-add features, you are unlikely to be successful, because the CEO is saying 'hard-dollar payback,' " he added. "And the way you get the hard-dollar payback is to displace the basic telephone services cost inside your business."

Claflin said the softswitch supports both IP and public switched telephone network standards, and he claimed that it offers the same 99.999% level of reliability of traditional private branch exchanges. It will also provide emergency 911 support for locating a user based on his desktop phone instead of the nearest wiring closet, Claflin said.

He said that 3Com itself is one of the beta sites for the switch and that the company expects to reduce its annual voice costs by 70%, partly by eliminating long-distance phone charges. In addition, the company would save on the expense of adding and removing users and by axing conference call costs, which would mean a 13-month payback, Claflin claimed.

The development of a highly scalable IP softswitch impressed two 3Com customers who nonetheless said their operations are probably too small to deploy it.

"We'd probably benefit from the technology enhancements they'd make in developing it," said Debbi Pryor, CIO at MountainBank in Hendersonville, N.C. MountainBank has saved $3,000 per month in long-distance charges and thousands of dollars more in IT management costs with 3Com's NBX technology and LAN switches, Pryor said.

Jim Maass, director of technology for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District in Truckee, Calif., has installed 3Com voice-over-IP gear in 12 buildings that house 4,500 students, but he said his operation is still too small for the softswitch. "I am a real 3Com advocate," he said, adding that he hopes the focus on larger customers "doesn't mean that 3Com forgets about us smaller clients."

The softswitch is based on intellectual property developed within 3Com's CommWorks division, which is being sold to UTStarcom Inc. in Alameda, Calif., for $100 million. The sale lets 3Com focus more on enterprises, since CommWorks targeted network carriers, Claflin explained. To deal with what promises to be an "ugly" economy for two to three more years, he added, 3Com will need to capture market share from other big switch.

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