I had a chance to catch up with Patrick Lo, the CEO of Netgear this week. Last year the networking company released 48 products and they are on track to do at least that this year. The company will begin selling a new line of six gigabit Ethernet switches this month.
The takeaway from my interview with Lo is that Netgear is once again driving costs down in a very impressive fashion, this time with an 8 switched gigabit port product selling for less than $150 called the GS608. It wasn't too long ago that we could get an 8-port shared 10BaseT hub for these prices and a gigE switch cost hundreds of dollars per port. Netgear isn't alone: Linksys, Buffalo Technology, and others have product at a similar price point.
Lo mentioned that he is using two suppliers for his gigabit switches: Broadcom and Marvell, and having two helps to drive costs for the chips down so he can keep his own prices low too. The interesting thing about Marvell is that they are serious about gigabit networking in a big way. The chip manufacturer recently completed a company-wide upgrade of all of their desktops to gigabit Ethernet. An impressive move, given that some of their wiring plant is too old or too fragile to support gigE. Lo told me that Marvell's wiring was all category 5 but some of it was substandard and couldn't support the gigabit speeds. Sometimes, the only way to find out is to really test each and every node. If you don't, you'll have some PCs that won't be able to connect at the fastest settings.
What distinguishes Netgear from the other lower-priced spreads is that they announced six different gigE switches, including a 16-port one for $350 and a 24-port one for about $500. They will also sell managed switches, including one with full SNMP support with 24 ports for $1000. At these prices, corporations can begin to deploy gigE in droves.
The issue, besides wiring, is to determine exactly what the real performance gains will be with gigE. If you still have network bottlenecks, upgrading to a faster network adapter and switch won't really solve your problem. It might also make the bottleneck harder to find, given that you'll also need to upgrade your tools to track these bottlenecks down to support gigE.
But while it is great that Netgear continues to drive the costs of networking down, any discussion of the company would be incomplete without mentioning some of its missteps over the past year. In its rush to deliver dozens of new products, Netgear has been plagued with a series of product quality issues that have hurt the company's reputation. For example, last year I last wrote (in WI # 340) about a series of mis-configured routers. The result was the University of Wisconsin's network was flooded with network time requests. While they have mostly resolved this issue, it is just sloppy programming that resulted in the packet storm.
And earlier this summer the company got some knocks for allowing a very risky back door in its WG602 wireless access points. Before closing the loophole completely, the company offered a patch that did nothing more than changing the username and password, still allowing access. Lo was very forthright in admitting they made a mistake and blaming one of his engineers who forgot the back door was in the code when the time came to release the router firmware to the public. I am not sure that I would want to have this engineer still working for my organization.
While the company has created fixes for both products, there are plenty of routers and access points that are still out in the world with the initial firmware load, and these will continue to remain a problem until their users take on the responsibility of upgrading them. Of course, vendors like Netgear and others could make it easier for these upgrades to happen, without consumers having to go through the pain of downloading and uploading the image and finding the right configuration page to do the updates.
In the meantime, I hope Netgear learns from these product quality blunders. Some of their customers who have been burned aren't going to come back. As one of my readers put it, "it takes quite a bit to turn my opinion around after this sort of example of extreme cluelessness."
Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.
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