University picks 3Com switches over Cisco

Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., has embarked on a total network upgrade covering three campuses, using H3C core and edge switches from 3Com Corp., to replace and expand upon existing Cisco Systems Inc. gear.

The project, valued at less than $1 million, includes several H3C data center switches from 3Com and more than 100 3Com H3C edge switches to serve a community of 8,000 students, faculty and staff, school officials said. 3Com launched the H3C brand in May in the U.S., a 3Com spokeswoman said.

Eventually, the university expects to have as many as 400 H3C edge switches as it grows in size over the next decade, said Fred Tarca, associate vice president of information services.

Brian Kelly, director of information security and network operations, said a major driver of network growth is the use of video, both by students and faculty.

"Two years ago I was trying to block use of YouTube by undergraduates, but following the presidential election, the use of that has morphed and even faculty are using it in the classroom," Kelly said in an interview. "Video is driving bandwidth and capacity planning."

Tarca said the university is essentially an Internet service provider to a group of students who are consumers accessing all kind of content as well as educational customers who use the Internet for vital educational materials. "The students want the same Internet experience as they get at home," he said.

The school doesn't charge a fee for Internet access, but has built access into the total costs of attending Quinnipiac as it competes with other universities to offer a range of features that will lure students, the officials said.

Tarca said the school is also using two-way, real-time videoconferencing based on the Microsoft Corp. Office Communications Server. Wireless gear from Aruba Networks Inc. connects the fiber optic network where the H3C gear is deployed to all the residential and classroom spaces, as well as sports facilities.

The new network is also planned to accommodate long-term growth in online education, which is laden with streaming video and audio, Tarca said.

Kelly said the university first became familiar with 3Com gear when it installed 3Com TippingPoint, an intrusion protection system, two years ago. The school has had no major network breaches, and working with 3Com has gone well, both men said.

The core H3C S9500 switches were recently installed in several data centers and are still undergoing some configuration, while the 100 H3C S5500G edge switches are being installed to wiring closets in a variety of buildings, a taks that will continue through the summer. The school will operate its core Cisco gear in a hybrid fashion alongside the new H3C gear for a while, Tarca said.

Picking 3Com gear came after Tarca, Kelly and others evaluated other vendors, including staying with Cisco. The process came with plenty of scrutiny because both recognized widely reported financial problems in the past at 3Com.

Through much of the current decade, 3Com struggled to produce profitable financial quarters, and analysts said part of the problem was that 3Com abandoned the market for enterprise networking products, and then returned to it. That process left some customers questioning whether 3Com would stay in the enterprise market.

Ultimately, 3Com helped keep down Quinnipiac's network upgrade costs, but also offered excellent products with great support, Tarca said.

"No matter which vendor we looked at, it came down to Cisco or non-Cisco, and Cisco does have $30 billion in cash," Tarca said. "But we stuck with our fundamental principles of wanting a good product at the right price that is supportable, with a team and company to back it up. Those requirements were met by 3Com."

Tarca conceded, "there's some risk" in choosing to go with 3Com, compared to choosing a bigger vendor. "Several of my peers were curious as to why we left the mother ship [of Cisco] ... but it all fits into a risk-reward ratio."

Kelly said he asked 3Com competitors why the university should not use 3Com, and it was hard for them to answer.

Cisco products are consistently higher priced than those of other networking providers but they are considered highly reliable for the most sophisticated networks. The company also provides constant innovation in its products, analysts said.

"3Com has solid gear that is well-built and well-engineered," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Inc.

As for customers like Quinnipiac, however, he added, "bucking the trend is always risky." He said 3Com probably doesn't have the support from resellers and integrators as compared to larger companies like Cisco. "But I'm sure the college got a good deal," he added.

Kerravala said 3Com made the right move in creating the H3C brand for enterprise customers, given its history. "The 3Com brand is a tarnished brand, so creating H3C for enterprise is the right thing to do," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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