Nortel's not had a great time of it, in the last few years. After years of growth, the company made a colossal $27 billion loss in 2001, slashed its workforce and came back to profitability in 2004, only to suffer an accounting scandal, law suits, and a steady round of savage job cuts and sacked senior executives.
None of that seems to bother Phil Edholm, chief technology officer for enterprise networks there. He says the company is coming back up, and set for a good time, as wireless networking and telecoms-related technology takes over the enterprise. But he's not in any hurry – even though wireless is a major part of his campaign, he's happy to give other vendors 18 months head start with 802.11n fast wireless LANs.
The long view
You would expect Edholm to take a long view. He admits to a long history in the industry, being an author of the Ethernet 10baseT standard, and a founder of the Frame Relay. And he's given his name to a communications equivalent to Moore's Law.
Edholm's Law, which he says is really an "observation," predicts the rate at which wired and wireless connections will increase, in proportion to each other. There's always been a roughly 1:10:100 ration between "wide-area" wireless (at the moment, that's 3G), nomadic wireless (Wi-Fi) and wired connectivity (Ethernet) he says.
But although the speeds increase, application requirements don't change fundamentally, because they rely on the speed we can type or process visual information, he says: "12 to 25Mbit/s is enough to produce an image that is virtually artefact free, at the pixel resolution of the eye."
So if wireless speeds go up, he says "the applications will move from fixed, to nomadic, to wireless."
"What's really interesting over the next couple of years is that the consumer world will be driven by video, and video on demand will saturate the consumer network," he says. "In the enterprise world, the promise is in extending what nomadic networks do. There is already little quality difference between working in the office and working at home - with 4G we can extend that experience to anywhere."
"Businesses will no longer be constrained to the office. With 4G, you can have the same experience, sitting at the client location - and this the potential to fundamentally change the working environment."
He's talking about a more "organisable" and flexible environment, and Nortel's decreasing employees can no doubt attest to the this – the company operates hot desking or “hotelling” in its office, so staff have no assigned location, and furniture can be reorganised as the organisation changes its structure.
The nitty gritty?
All that is a standard vision which any number of other vendors would echo. Can he get more specific?
"Our direction is for the wireless enterprise," he says. "We look forward to the standardisation of 802.11n and the advent of technologies from the cellular carrier world in the enterprise."
He's still talking futures though. "Somewhere in 2010 or 2011, it should be possible to build a wireless building or campus infrastructure that has the right bandwidth, protection against intentional or unintentional jamming, and and RF security," he promises. "That combination of things can generate a time when users no longer use wires in buildings."
But when is this happening? We pushed him further on a somewhat strange announcement from last year, on the subject of wireless switches. Last July, Nortel said it would end its OEM relationship with Trapeze and bring out its own wireless switches - but it wouldn't say say anything about those switches, or when they would arrive. Such a move was guaranteed to reduce confidence, earned Nortel a place on Techworld's Wireless Whoopsies list for 2007.
Six months on, can Edholm say more about those own-brand switches?
Unfortunately, not really. He has some pointers to what Nortel thinks it might do, but it's on a very relaxed timeline.
"What we said was we saw that [the Trapeze relationship] had been good for that generation of technology, and we are now looking forward to the next generation," he says. "The next generation is where wireless really changes."
The current generation, based on 802.11abg, is usually implemented as an "overlay", he says. The new order, based around 802.11n and other standards requires a transition and new infrastructure. "For 802.11abg we have a good technology in place [the Trapeze OEM deal]. The next generation will be done with Nortel intellectual property."
As well as 802.11n, this next generation will include cellular technologies from the cellular world, where Nortel has strengths, he says: "Nortel has some incredible opportunities, because of our IPR in the cellular wireless world, to create that next generation technology."
"Trying to do that with an OEM partner is difficult," he says. "You can't be agile."
There's something to that, but how agile is Nortel being? Everyone else from Cisco downwards is already putting out 802.11n kit and claiming benefits to users. Lots of them are also starting to consider in-building cellular in the form of picocells and femtocells.
When is Nortel going to join the 802.11n party? Not till the middle of 2009, says Edholm.
Nortel, he says, won't make an 802.11n product until there is a standard - and he really is talking about the fully-published final 802.11n standard, which won't be completed till mid-2009. "We very much believe that we want to make sure what we do is based on the standard," he says. "The standard is not approved yet," he says. "What we've counselled the enterprise is to be very careful with 802.11n before the standard is finalised."
He's flying in the face of every other network vendor there, and the Wi-Fi Alliance, which has been branding 802.11n kit for a year. But he's adamant: "Do you want to take the risk? What you are looking at is probably a major transition. Don't get into that lightly! It should be based on an approved standard."
Can Nortel compete?
Despite this caution, and Nortel's fall from grace in the last few years, Edholm is sure that decline is reversed, and the company is ready to take business from Cisco, in the area of unified communications. "We are in the position of being the true alternative to Cisco," he assures me, pointing out that Gartner has changed its opinion from advising caution on Nortel, to saying it is "a company any CIO should be looking at," according to Edholm.
Nortel is now making greater-than-market growth, he says, bringing endorsements from other analysts too. The company's network trunking is superior, its kit is reliable, and it can offer telecoms-grade failover of less than 100 ms. "When people do real comparisons on infrastructure, you see us winning on a majority of those comparisons."
And there's always opportunity for a Cisco alternative, he says: "Cisco sells 37 percent of the ports, and has 78 percent of the revenue - that shows you something about its pricing and margins." If Nortel is resurging, a lot of its business will be in the enterprise, he says. Two years ago, the company committed to the enterprise, which is "an anchor business for Nortel going forwards."
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