Last week I had the fortunate experience of attending the COMNET conference in Washington, DC. It is one of the biggest Computer and Networking conventions in the country. Below are my thoughts, observations and opinions of my experiences throughout the week.

The first part is a collection of short summaries of the best presentations and seminars. The second part is a review of a few of the new product demonstrations I attended. At the bottom I discuss some overall interesting points and my conclusions.

Selected Keynotes and Presentations

The World Wide Web at the Millennium

Tim Berners-Lee, W3 Consortium, MIT

Tim is credited with creating the World Wide Web and the technology behind browsers. He gave a very animated presentation about the direction that the technology will take us.

"The Goal is to build conceptually consistent, socially relevant, and technically expandable as to allow the next great paradigm to become conceivable".

The Web is supposed to be an inter-creative universal information space were groups of people can collaborate on common interests. As soon as you create something new it would be added to the information collective. Anyone can see it and maybe modify it and correct it...or add links to something else. This would all depend on the permissions when you publish the document. There would be groups of keys that would be needed to access or modify different documents. One for each personality that you may need - employee, professor, parent - whatever.

There would have to be a "Web of Trust". If you see something written by me you should be able to check the digital signature to verify that I did indeed write it and where it came from. There should be an "Oh yeah" button. You would click it when you read something you think is hard to believe. It would produce the "suggested path of trust". Something like: this document was produced by this server which copied an original copy from that bank which is authenticated with the right key and is on the list of banks that you say you trust.

Some "World Intellectual Property Organization" would allow us to check if a document or picture is copyrighted. Can I print it? Can I show it to my family?

The protocols for privacy have to be robust. If I was to give my credit card number or my shoe size over the web how do I know that valuable information isn't being passed to each site that I subsequently connect to. Someone should be able to connect to a site with a hood over their head, or their credit card out, or their passport and drivers license and know that its secure. Web sites should have to abide by privacy agreements.

There needs to a protocol for notifying when documents are updated. You shouldn't have to mail out the entire new message just a URL indicating that it has been updated. This should be tied into the caching algorithm somehow...since that is what it supposed to be doing anyway.

This should lead to the demise of hierarchical information sharing - employee to manager to director to VP to CEO and back down. Instead there would be free association and interaction within an organization-wide body of knowledge. Which would lead to scaleable companies which can make local decisions. It would cause a blend of global, group and personal interactions - forming the cells of the global brain.

Will the lack of geography polarize or homogenize culture? Will jealousy and hatred or peace, love and understanding rule?

Tim Berners-Lee thinks its up to you. The projects that the WWW Consortium is working on can be found at:

At the Crossroads of the Communications Technology

Steve Forbes, President and CEO, Forbes, Inc.

The fact that Forbes is a failed presidential candidate from last year and that this talk was being delivered in Washington definitely added an extra dimension. It was clear to everyone present that he is pushing an agenda.

Steve Forbes believes that the biggest obstacles for progress in technology are regulations and taxes. The political culture has to keep pace with the rapid change in our business and social interactions. This has not been the case with telecom regulations and the tax code.

Today computers extend the human mind the same way machines have extended human muscle. Computers and communications are going to have as profound a change on society as the industrial revolution. The trends are pro-individual, anti-hierarchical, and anti-government.

Regulators are mostly worried about monopoly and prices. A free market and competition would naturally keep prices in check. The burden of a complicated tax code on the nation is a tremendous waste of resources. There are 1200 words in the Declaration of Independence, 773,0000 words in the Bible and over 7,000,000 words in the Tax Code - and noone can tell you what is in it. Governments are reluctant to cut back on taxes because it limits their power.

For the first half hour of his talk I was wondering if he was going to say "Flat Tax" - then I got my answer - yes. When someone asked him for a direct relationship between the flat tax and technology he didn't have an answer.

I suppose I could imagine a html form to fill out your taxes.

Enterprise without Walls

David Nagel, President of AT&T Labs

Since the latest AT&T breakup Bell Labs is now under different leadership with a focused mission to turn the organization into a profit center. David Nagel was hired as AT&T Lab's first president. He spoke about how the Web will change the way we do business.

Electronic commerce on the net should be "frictionless". Market research in now easier than ever before. Retail purchasers should be able to find new suppliers. Suppliers should be able to find new customers. A combination of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) and Intranets could make geographically dispersed autonomous organizations possible. Each group plays a different role and adds to the "virtual enterprise value chain". Of course, all transactions on the public network would have to be secure and private. The electronic storefront can be much more efficient than traditional storefronts. Economic models would be turned upside down.

An example of what is to come can be found at:

Arguably, the worlds largest bookstore.

Networking for Business Scalability

John Chambers, President and CEO, Cisco Systems, Inc.

I've seen John speak many times at company meetings. I was surprised how much of his presentation was the same as one of our internal ones. He used the company as an example of how electronic commerce should be done.

The information infrastructure of any business will be critical to their survival. All types of business will be able operate as if they have a "virtual factory". Companies will be able to leverage their geographical diversity and strengths of partners and clients to succeed in new markets. Their competitors of the past will not be the competitors of the future. Differences between business such as brokerage houses, banks and insurance companies will be begin to blur.

Cisco is one of the largest users of electronic commerce. Customers can research, purchase our products and check the progress of any order through our web page. It is estimated that we saved $125M in 1996 by using web based commerce agents. This has enabled the company to hire 1000 more engineers and move even further ahead.

Interesting Vendor Products and Demonstrations

Cisco Systems

Cisco had quite the booth at COMNET. They pretty much had one of everything we make - the new routers (3600s, 1600s), Stratacom equipment, PIX firewalls, etc. The only thing that I've never seen before was the Micro Webserver. A tiny box the size of a modem with a built in Zip drive. It runs Web server software right out of the box.


Sony was demonstrating their TriniCom line video conferencing equipment. I took a close look at the high end version - The TriniCom 5000 which goes for between $10k and $20k. It uses 3 ISDN BRI lines (384Kbps). The demo was set up with a woman in Kansas City on the far end of the link. There were two large monitors - one to see the people at the meeting and the other to see their computer screen. I was able to converse easily using the high quality speaker phone set up and view a live spreadsheet at the same time. They had whiteboard service available so that we both could draw or point right on the spreadsheet. Both cameras can be remotely controlled from an on-screen menu to swing left, right and zoom in. I didn't notice any delay in the connection at all. It was the most complete implementation I've seen.

Sony also makes a Trinicom Mini 1000 that works with a PC. They supply a 20 inch monitor that contains all the electronics. You just connect it to your video and parallel port and plug the monitor into an ISDN line. Its nice that you don't have to mess with any PC boards. It also serves as a high resolution monitor. The list price was about $7k.

France Telecom

France Telecom is the telecom service provider for France, offering service from France to the rest of the world and the US to France. They are doing a lot of work with ATM and providing internet access. They use lots of Cisco 2500s and 5200s. They are also doing ADSL trials to the home.

They had a web server/video conferencing demonstration. It is part of a project with a clothing manufacturer. You can view the catalog on their web site from France. If you find a dress you like there is recorded video available of a model walking down the aisle of a fashion show with that dress. If you still have questions, you can pull up a video conferencing session with an agent. I was immediately connected over an ATM network to France (25Mbps -> Fore switch -> DS3 -> Comnet). Two women came right up on the screen. The video was very good quality but there was a 1 second (each direction) delay. After I would say something there was a pause before they would react. It was the first time I was involved in a high quality video conference across an ocean.

e-Net, Inc.

A small company from MD has a PC ethernet card that comes with a POTS port. The port allows you to connect an analog phone directly to the ethernet card. Besides working with an NDIS driver like a standard ethernet card you can also make calls that will be digitized and sent out over ethernet. The software they have allows auto-discovery of other PCs on the network using their own protocol. You are presented with a directory of phone numbers and can either dial through the PC or by hand. The protocol is not IP based (but they are working on it) and would have to be bridged. There are also able to set up a gateway PC with an ISDN card that can connect the phone system. I was able to check my voicemail with their demo. It looks like a decent product and they said that someone from Cisco was already speaking with them.

Interesting points to think about

Gigabit Ethernet vs. ATM and LANE

There were many spirited discussions contrasting the advantages of Gigabit Ethernet vs. ATM with LANE. The fact that there are currently no standards for Gigabit Ethernet and only one proprietary solution available (GigaLabs) didn't seem to bother anyone. They were talking so seriously about it I had to go by our booth to see if we had anything from Granite (our Gigabit Ethernet acquisition) - we don't.

The discussion seemed to involve a few points:

IP Switching vs. Tag Switching

Ipsilon Networks is shipping a new product line called IP Switches. It is an interesting new technology that implements "flow switching" that is defined in a number of RFCs - RFC1953,RFC1954,RFC1987.

Tag switching is a technology that Cisco has announced and has under development. It is a testament to the power of Cisco that people can take our vaporware so seriously. There were a number of debates as to which is "going to win". The Cisco plan was that we would have Netflow for legacy networks, MPOA (Multiprotocol over ATM) as a solution for medium sized networks, and Tag switching for very large networks. If you're interested I'm sure there is a marketing slide somewhere on our web site about this.

LECs entering the Long Distance Market and Telecom Pricing

There were a number of seminars focusing on the changes in the industry due to the Telecom Act of 1996. There were representatives present from the FCC, MCI, Bell Atlantic, and Consumer groups. These were some of the main issues:

Notable Misc. Comments