IBM's huge corporate losses announced recently have once again highlighted the company's past strategy of locking its customers into its proprietary operating systems. Its concentration on its Systems Network Architecture-(SNA) based product lines has been attributed to playing a large part in the firm's downward spiral. Customers have become more and more frustrated with problems of interconnecting other systems, especially their personal computer (PC) networks into their mainframe environment. One company, IDEA, believes it has the networking solution that many SNA users want but so far has not been reliably provided. IDEA was founded in 1982 and has worked to create communications products aimed at commercial businesses. As users' requirements and the technology has become more complex, the company has moved from offering a single product in 1982 - stand alone products for the IBM PCs - to enterprise-wide solutions today. In 1984 it produced IDEAcomm 5251, a connection path between PCs and IBM's mid-range systems, while in 1988 with the purchase of Alcatel Information Systems it took on the IBM mainframe communications market. Last year the company's revenues were $170 million. ''For this year we're focusing on our inter-networking product as the main extension of our range,'' said Mr Gautam Gupta, the company's president during a recent marketing visit to Hongkong. Mr Gupta was one of the firm's three founding partners. According to a survey by Cowen & Co, Datamation data processing managers are increasingly turning to networked solutions and away from the mainframe. ''LANs are going to continue to grow but we can't see a sudden switch off of all the SNA machines out there although the market is shrinking. Probably they'll want to link them together,'' said Mr Gupta. This, of course, poses a problem: how do you exchange information efficiently between a PC LAN and SNA-based hardware. While PCs have used gateways and emulation cards for some time to access mainframes, the solution is unwieldy in the growing PC LAN market. Why? Firstly, users have to grasp the operating methodology of an SNA environment as well as the desktop's graphical user interface (like Windows) and secondly information exchange is inefficient. ''SNA is designed to take a steady beat of small amounts of information whereas data over the PC network can come in sudden big bursts,'' said Mr Gupta. ''The problem in merging the two has been the storm created by the PC file server when it makes a data request. It often stops SNA cold in its tracks and shuts the system down.'' According to Mr Gupta no other competitor offers a similar solution. ''They cobble together a patchwork of solutions of routers, gateways and things like that which encapsulate data then de-encapsulate it a number of times. What then happens is that performance is degraded.'' He argues this kind of solution helps safeguard a firm's investment in data and applications running on an SNA environment but accepts the reality that PC-networked systems is the way computerisation is going. IDEA's Inter-networking product has already notched up a few big name customers, in particular within the manufacturing sector. ''We have an installed base at Polaroid and Renault, among others.'' The prospective customer base is substantial with an estimated installed SNA base worldwide of more than $60 billion. The Hongkong market alone is an attractive one with IDEA estimating that there are more than 1,000 SNA machines in the territory. ''We have estimated that each reasonable sized installation is worth over $1 million and we would expect that about 15 per cent of our business would come from this market, this year,'' said Mr Gupta. The company is also willing to pre-configure a package from their manufacturing and development plant in the United States providing customers send an accurate corporate network diagram with speeds and specifications.