3Com has announced a new strategy of embedding security, management and VoIP services from itself and others into its routers and switches.

The Open Services Networking (OSN) plan will begin with a new module for 3Com routers that is capable of running applications from a number of new partners including VMware, as well as from open source code. 3Com says its strategy rivals Cisco's approach for running advanced services at the network layer but allows IT executives more flexibility in choosing such services.

It is a novel approach, but the challenge will be to sustain the effort - 3Com has made a number of comeback attempts in recent years.

The news marks the company's first significant product launch since 3Com veteran Edgar Masri rejoined the company as its CEO in August. It also comes two months after 3Com bought out its joint venture with Huawei Technologies.

3Com's OSN module is a Linux-based server blade that fits into the company's 6000 series routers. The blade will operate inside the 6000 unit on top of the core IP routing and security layer, which runs on a proprietary operating system and hardware, as before. Administrators can control the OSN blade through a Web-based interface, independent of the control interface for the 6000 device.

3Com is partnering with four software vendors, whose code will be able to run on top of the blades. In addition, 3Com says it is working on moving its own VCX IP PBX platform, as well as its TippingPoint intrusion-detection and intrusion-prevention products (IDS/IPS), to the ONS module.

The module will be released to limited service provider and channel partner customers this month, with availability - and pricing - for enterprises expected in the fourth quarter. The company will also have an ONS module equivalent for its Switch 7000 and 8000 series Ethernet switches later this year.

"It's an interesting approach for 3Com," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group. "Anything that can run as an embedded service on a network can run on [the OSN blade]; Their ability to virtualise services, especially with VMware, allows a customer to run almost anything on the router."

The ONS blade runs a modified version of Red Hat Linux and employs SELinux technology - security code built into the Linux kernel and developed originally by the US National Security Agency - to help protect the operating system and applications running on it from being hijacked or hacked.

An embedded firewall also sits on the blade's interface to the 6000 series' underlying routing engine, according to 3Com product manager Bart Lenaerts.

3Com is among several vendors fighting an uphill battle in enterprise routing against Cisco, which controls about 80 percent of worldwide sales and shipments.