Buying into VPNs –

I'm as sick of all the hype about VPNs as anyone, but from what I can tell, this stuff is for real.

A colleague and I recently dined with the CEOs of four virtual private network firms -- Indus River, NetScreen, Network Alchemy and VPNet -- during Interop in Atlanta.

To say these executives were optimistic would be a huge understatement. They don't deny that big interoperability challenges lie ahead and that many VPN vendors will fall by the wayside, but they also were throwing out the names of plenty of customer reference sites and challenging each other to find out who has the biggest installation. The fact that they are willing to name customers is impressive. Typically, whenever you ask vendors that sell security-related products about their customers, they spew out something like: "We'd really love to tell you about our customers, but you see, they don't want to talk about their security systems because it would only invite hackers to try to break the systems."

I've participated in similar dinners with start-ups from the Gigabit Ethernet switch and terabit router markets, and I can testify that these VPN companies seem to be way ahead of where those other companies were at the same stage in their lives.

It's also interesting to note that the Big Boys of networking are going after the VPN market so aggressively. All four CEOs say Nortel is really pushing its Contivity Extranet Switch, and another source says Cisco is making a strong pitch to go with it for VPNs rather than cobbling together a VPN system with various start-ups' gear.

Need more proof that VPNs are for real? I attended a one-day tutorial on VPNs during the first day of Interop and a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds packed the room to hear about a subject that's drier than my mouth was the morning after my friend's recent bachelor party.

Network users I've spoken with are also high on VPNs. One such network professional, Gian Zoppo of Designory in Long Beach, Calif., says his experience with VPNs to date has been "so far, so good." His biggest problem is getting T-1 lines up and running, nothing to do with the VPN gear itself.

More proof? There's a new VPN Forum in the works thanks to a pair of professors from Ball State University. Another place for VPN minds to meet, the VPN Consortium, provides plenty of good information about VPNs.

Now don't get the impression I've got blinders on here. When I mentioned to several contacts that I'd be participating in the aforementioned VPN dinner, they jumped at the chance to knock these VPN companies off their pedestal. And I was all ears. One source reeled off a list of VPN boxes his company had tossed out because they didn't work as advertised; another wanted me to ask the VPN CEOs whether they were making any money yet. (Nope, they admit that they aren't. In fact, Network World picked up the dinner check.)

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