Optical-internetworking competitors

Sept. 1, 1998

Optical-internetworking competitors

By ROBERT PEASE

Two data-communications equipment manufacturers, Cisco Systems Inc. (San Jose, CA) and Ascend Communications Inc. (Westford, MA), recently announced new optical-internetworking strategies for positioning switches at the gateway to the optical layer. But if these two competitors have any misconceptions about simply dividing the carrier market between them, they may want to take a peek over their shoulders.

Competition for this healthy market lurks all around them, and telecommunications carriers won`t be lacking choices when making decisions about how best to adapt their networks. Such companies as Argon Networks Inc. (Littleton, MA), Netcore Systems Inc. (Wilmington, MA), Hughes Network Systems (Germantown, MD), and Avici Systems Inc. (Chelmsford, MA) are out to give Cisco and Ascend a run for their money.

With data traffic exploding as demand for the Internet increases, telecommunications carriers are faced with finding the most efficient and cost-effective way of transporting voice and data over longer distances. Armed with new marketing strategies that center on the direct connection of their switches to the optical layer, equipment vendors are competing for position before the eyes of potential customers.

The benefits of direct optical interface, says Chris Nicoll, senior research analyst at Current Analysis, a Virginia-based market research company, are fewer pieces of equipment, fewer points of failure, fewer management problems and, one hopes, lower costs.

Cisco introduced the 12000 Gigabit Switch Router and helped coin the term "optical internetworking" when it partnered with ciena Corp. (Linthicum, MD) to tout the advantages of using wavelength-division multiplexing (wdm) as the entryway to the optical layer (see Lightwave, June 1998, page 1). Ascend wasn`t far behind with its new GX 550 "Smart" Core Asynchronous Transfer Mode (atm) switch (see Lightwave, August 1998, page 1). Nearly everyone in the equipment market contacted by Lightwave agrees in concept with this strategy, although products and focus differ from vendor to vendor. As one marketing professional puts it, "It would be a lot easier to check on what company isn`t developing an optical internetworking strategy of some kind."

So it would seem. Argon, for one, has been working for some time in this direction and claims to have seen a trend emerging long before the Cisco announcement. But while the company`s marketing machine may not compete with the "big boys," its product will. The company introduced the GigaPacket Node, a hybrid platform that combines both atm switch and Internet Protocol (IP) router functions, with optical internetworking in mind.

"Our platform is unique when it comes to high-availability aspects on the network, which is absolutely necessary if you plan to eliminate traditional sonet characteristics from the system," says Chris Baldwin, vice president of marketing at Argon. "We`ve also introduced grooming characteristics and a channelized interface port on the access side, which will eliminate a lot of crossconnect equipment."

Baldwin visualizes a three-step process in any optical-internetworking strategy. The first step is to provide the high speeds of OC-48 (2.5 Gbits/sec) and above on the backbone side. The second step is ensuring an "up time," or availability aspect, comparable to that which sonet already provides to carriers. Lastly, the product must decrease the number of sonet components used on both the backbone and the access side of the interface. "Cisco and Ascend have concentrated their attention on the backbone side of the transport interface," says Baldwin. "They haven`t addressed the access side, particularly when it comes to grooming the data. That`s what sets Argon`s interface platform apart."

Avici has a similar strategy, but works in a different space. A staunch proponent of atm-over-ip technology, Avici enters the optical-internetworking market with its tsr ip switch router. "We`re just reversing the 10-year-old paradigm of carrying IP over atm," says Hank Zannini, vice president of business development at Avici. "Instead, we`re carrying atm on IP." Although Avici doesn`t manufacture atm switches, its product comes equipped with an atm multiservice access port that interfaces with existing atm switches for customers desiring an IP-centric network.

Not every data-communications equipment manufacturer is chasing the optical-networking balloon, however. Peter Ruzicka, senior public relations manager of 3Com (Santa Clara, CA), says his firm has no current plans to pursue an optical-networking strategy. Other companies, such as Hughes, will continue to remain focused on other sectors of the market while remaining vigilant about trends such as direct optical interfacing. Hughes has generally focused on the access side and supports a multitude of carrier network interfaces. "For the most part, we`re still working with data at OC-3 [155-Mbit/sec] speeds and reaching OC-12 [622 Mbits/sec]," says Darrell Tanno, director of business development at Hughes`s Enterprise Networks Div. "Although we`re very much on board with the premise of atm providing more and more user interfaces without sonet, we`re still at lower speeds and haven`t seen a need to do some of the direct optical interfaces that you`re seeing now. We are, however, consciously taking account of the fact that we can take these `piece parts` and grow them to give us a more diverse portfolio of products."

Carriers make the call

As a multitude of optical-internetworking equipment vendors seek to woo carriers to their product lines with promises of efficiency, reduced costs, and other marketable qualities, the carriers will ultimately decide what`s best for their fiber-optic pipes. Different products may very well have different appeal to carriers who want to tap into the explosive data market.

"In general, given the explosion in data, different carriers have very different needs," says Steve Hensley, vice president of engineering for gst Telecommunications Inc. in Vancouver, WA. "The single most important component is finding the best equipment and vendor that cater to a carrier`s specific needs." In building its atm-based virtual integrated transport and access (vita) network (see Lightwave, August 1998, page 17), gst sought a vendor whose equipment would best serve the carrier`s growing data and voice needs, as well as provide the necessary support to deploy it. Hensley believes carriers are lining up behind atm because most currently have it in place and an immediate need exists for equipment that can deal with voice traffic in addition to data traffic.

"Essentially, we must have the ability to pass aal1 [atm adaptation layer] and aal2 for voice traffic," says Hensley. "As a carrier, gst can`t abandon this for some idealistic thought that everything can go over IP at this moment in time. When voice-over-IP is more widespread, I think we`ll benefit from various other options."

Telstra, an Australia-based carrier building a nationwide network in its home country, is also aware of the trend in optical internetworking and is evaluating the circumstances under which connecting atm directly to the optical layer would be attractive. So far, says Denis Mullane, general manager for Telstra`s wide area network products, it appears to be attractive over short distances, but the attraction becomes less clear for long distance because of the atm overhead on IP traffic.

"It will also depend very much on there being a cost-effective method of providing redundancy on direct optical paths," says Mullane. "Overall, this strategy must provide significant cost reductions to have an important impact on network carriers."

Even though the carriers may seem hesitant at the moment, equipment manufacturers appear to be putting development of these products on the front burner. Vendors, both well-established and startups, are convinced this market trend equates to big business because there is no straightforward, absolute package that will work for every customer. Unlike the simple hardware packages useful in less complex applications, routing and switching system designs must accommodate a lot of extra considerations, such as dealing with congestion, prioritization, policy management, network management, and failure recovery. According to Nicoll of Current Analysis, the "ace-in-the-hole" for startup companies will be their ability to keep a technological edge.

"Upstart companies need to lead the way in technology--being faster, better, and cheaper at the higher speeds," says Nicoll. "On the other hand, the market leaders will play on their marketing strengths, such as service, support, reliability, and capability. Technology never wins over marketing and, in the optical-internetworking world, technology is great but reliability is absolutely `king of the hill.`" q

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