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Internet Pioneer Plots IP Revolution

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading

According to Dr. Lawrence Roberts, Al Gore didn't create the Internet: Dr. Roberts did it himself, when he led the team that designed and developed Arpanet (the precursor to today's Internet) back in the sixties.

Now he's looking to lead another Internet revolution. His latest venture, a startup called Caspian Networks, is developing a new kind of switching technology that targets the core of the Internet, delivering improvements in Internet scalability, reliability, performance, and quality of service (QOS), he says.

Roberts claims Caspian's products will make conventional routers from vendors like Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY), and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) — not to mention ATM switches from the likes of Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) and Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) — extinct "within 18 months."

Fighting talk — and words that have impressed the financial community. So far, Caspian has received $55 million in two rounds of funding from seven backers, including some top flight names: US Venture Partners (USVP), New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Lucent Venture Partners Inc., Alloy Ventures, Applied Technologies (no URL), Vulcan Ventures, and WorldCom Inc.. A third round of funding is imminent, Caspian says.

Roberts also says the company has a staff of 230. The problem is that for now that's pretty much all he's saying. While he's happy to talk up his company's potential, he flatly refuses to be drawn on how Caspian's technology works, citing the fact that the company plans to stay in stealth mode until March 2001, when it intends to announce products and customers. It's briefed a handful of analysts, but only under strict non-disclosure agreements. (Roberts only agreed to be interviewed by Light Reading after negotiations).

Nevertheless, Caspian's impressive lineup of backers, combined with Roberts's Internet credentials, makes it worth digging deeper into the company.

The place to start is by looking at its roots. Caspian actually started out as a company called Packetcom Inc., which was founded by Roberts in June of 1998. It changed its name in April this year. Why does this matter? Because Roberts was a good bit more forthcoming about what he was working on in the days of Packetcom than he is now that it's become Caspian.

"Packetcom was building a combination ATM switch and IP router — like Ipsilon's, but not as stupid," says David Newman, president of Network Test. (Ipsilon developed a hybrid IP/ATM lemon, and was sold to Nokia Corp. [NYSE: NOK] for a song in a going-out-of-business sale).

But there was a lot more to Packetcom's plan than just supporting two protocols. Roberts’s big mantra was that the IP protocol itself must be retrofitted with signaling that allows network devices on the receiving end of a stream of packets to send feedback messages back to transmitting devices specifying rate and delay requirements. Doing so, Roberts said, would allow IP networks to deliver guaranteed latency for voice and video traffic for the first time, as well as providing other benefits, such as improved scalability. He also argued in favor of developing a new, faster signaling scheme for ATM.

It's highly likely that a new signaling scheme is central to Caspian's switching strategy.

According to David H. Yedwab, executive vice president at the Eastern Management Group consultancy, Caspian has other tricks up its sleeve as well. "All I can tell you is that they've got more than one breakthrough. It's more than a one-trick pony."

"I haven't seen anyone else that's attacking the problem in the same way [as Caspian]," he adds. "Some terabit router vendors are trying to address some of the same issues, but Caspian is beyond them.”

He confirms that the Caspian switch will support both IP and ATM.

— Stephen Saunders, US editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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