Back in the good old days, the 80s that is - you know Maggie Thatcher, The Smiths, stock market collapses - when the word computer meant a metallic box the size of two filing cabinets with flashing lights, and an 80Mb disk drive took all the space available in a Cortina estate with the back seats down, the market understood that when you bought a computer you bought a proprietary system. Back then, that included all the hardware and software to run your specific application - this would never change.
Companies like Digital, Sperry, Prime and CDC dominated the market - silly money was invested, and glass palaces built. Computers wanted to talk to one another and run common applications, turning operating systems and applications into healthy margins, and changing hardware into a commodity.
Hello Dos and Unix, goodbye mini computer manufacturer. But the question is - will the same happen to the established Wan manufacturers?
With the announcement by Microsoft and Novell to include routing software in their standard NOS and the general awakening of the market to the potential of digital switched services like ISDN, are established box manufacturers about to become a casualty of the computer industry, killed off by their failure to offer users what they want?
With minimal integration capabilities, no open architecture for new applications as they become available and a shelf-life of under a year, it's hard to imagine how standalone box solutions can survive. In contrast, open platform technology suffers from none of these faults.
The market for this technology is small to medium-sized businesses, which make up more than 95 per cent of the UK business structure, and the branches of large corporates. Finally, the ability to build true multimedia communications servers that can optimise their communications infrastructure investment has finally arrived, but this time it's affordable for the average business.
The integration of multiprotocol router technology into the local area networking environment has made it less easy to define the gap between Lan and Wan, so network managers will gradually perceive less of a distinction between them and will soon manage their corporate networks on a logical networking basis.
Black box or standalone routers are not set to disappear completely, though they will still play an important role in forming the backbone of large corporate networks.
A typical vision of the future would see a dedicated router box forming a corporate backbone connected to remote access servers which would provide the desired applications such as database management, directory services, file and print, fax, email and possibly video conferencing to each of the users across the network.
This, of course, will not only be restricted to corporate intranets, but will provide a gateway to the internet and other developing network services from financial services, retail and internet service providers themselves.
The key point for the reseller is that whatever technologies are around the corner, open-based systems will always favour the Var, which by definition needs to be able to offer the customer that little bit extra, which they wouldn't get from a supplier that competed solely on price. After all, wasn't it the rise of the minicomputer which gave birth to the Var in the first place.
Open Systems represent a flexible building block which Vars can add to and re-package into tailored solutions. Proprietary systems seem like neat solutions, but are limited - there is little scope for the financial rewards of systems integration.
As an evangelist of this technology, I am one of the few against the many, especially in the UK, where traditional box manufacturers like 3Com and Cisco will put together any number of arguments to champion their continued dominance. But don't get me wrong, they will be around for some time yet.
Market research firm Dataquest figures show that by the turn of the century, open and closed remote access systems will hold equal market shares.
However, I had a similar conversation with a guy from Prime back in 1987 ... or was it Wang?
Steve Shergold is Managing Director of ITK Telecommunications.
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