While market leader Cisco is looking beyond its core LAN switching market for growth, smaller competitors with brands found more often in the aisles of PC World and Dixons are gaining ground in small and midsize businesses.

Even as Cisco looks to address smaller markets with its Linksys-One initiative - which combines Cisco and Linksys gear with MCI converged services for as many as 100 small-business end users - Cisco may find that many smaller businesses are getting what they need for LAN and wireless LAN (WLAN) technology from D-Link, Netgear, SMC and others.

Cisco has held the dominant position in market share for the LAN switch revenue for most of this decade. But in terms of the number of ports sold and installed, smaller vendors are giving the company a run. For 2004, Cisco held 68 percent of the $2.9 billion world-wide LAN switch market, according to market research firm In-Stat; however, it shipped only 28 percent of the 3.8 million ports sold. Right behind Cisco was D-Link, with 20 percent of shipments. Cisco's own Linksys SOHO brand was third, with 12.5 percent, and consumer networking power Netgear followed closely, with 11.5 percent.

Businesses follow consumers
Much of the shipment success of smaller firms is because of increased demand for Ethernet ports in consumer markets, such as broadband-enabled homes with integrated routers/LAN switches. But businesses also are putting what they call simple, effective LAN switch products from such vendors to work.

"The world-wide SMB market has approximately 80 million potential customers," says Norm Bogen, an analyst with In-Stat. Many of these firms use the Internet as an integral part of doing business, with technologies such as WLANs and Gigabit Ethernet evolving in small offices.

One such firm is ImageSource, a firm that sells document and image-management technologies. The company recently used D-Link switches to build a LAN based on Gigabit Ethernet in the core and 10/100Mbit/s at the edge.

The need for Gigabit came as the company's bandwidth needs ballooned: High-resolution image management for clients involves scanning more than 1,100 pages of documents per day and up to 300GB of digital storage, says Shadrach White, the company's CTO. White says that sending 5MB files over the LAN was taking as long as 12 minutes, and backing up a day's work took almost as long as it did to produce it - 18 hours over the network.

The firm uses DXS-3350SR stackable switches in its core, which connect 15 servers and high-end workstations with Gigabit Ethernet links. These switches also are used to connect 100 workstations and workgroup servers via 10/100 links, with Gigabit links back to the two core switches. (Each port on the boxes can run at 10/100/1000Mbit/s).

With Layer 3, triple-speed Ethernet and slots for four fibre-based uplink ports, the DXS-3350SR matches up approximately to Cisco's Catalyst 3750 stackable switch. But the $3600 (£2090) price for the D-Link boxes was a better fit for ImageSource than the 48-port Catalyst 3750, which starts at around $14,000 (£8125).

When wireless is the best option
Business WLAN deployments are another area where consumer-focused network companies are finding success. Recently, the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Irvine, California, wired 335 guest rooms with Ethernet links, and provided WLAN access for guests and hotel staff with a mix of equipment from Netgear. David Giron, chief engineer for the hotel, priced a combined LAN/WLAN infrastructure (from a vendor that he would not name) at around $80,000 (£46,400). This was a mixed wired and wireless architecture that would connect users via WLAN only in the hotel lobby and some public areas, Giron says.

Instead, the hotel went completely wireless. The network now consists of Netgear ME103 ProSafe WLAN access points deployed individually in guest rooms, and some access points equipped with extended-range antennas for common areas, such as the lobby. The equipment cost $4000 (£2320).

Another firm deploying networks for hospitality customers says SMC is its network gear of choice. Integration firm Insystcom installed Ethernet LAN and very high bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL)-based in-room broadband access technology for resort hotels in the Caribbean and aboard cruise ships. The company used SMC Ethernet switches and VDSL nodes for these installations. It uses SMC TigerAccess Extended Ethernet VDSL technology, which allows for 15Mbit/s links to guest rooms via existing telephone wiring. The wire connects rooms as far as 5000 feet away from SMC switches, which tie the room into the overall LAN and connect to the Internet.

"It's not just cost," says Wil Riner, CEO of Insystcom, about the reason he uses SMC gear in his deployments. "It's [SMC's] understanding of the application. It's the packaging. A lot of the equipment goes right into the rooms - not the typical data centre/wiring closet environments of a corporation."

He says the fact that SMC has a strong background in designing gear for the consumer networking market helps the product succeed in hotel deployments.

"It has a lot to do with the acceptability," he says. "How intrusive and how big are [are the devices]?"