More on Infinera (née Zepton)

Infinera appears to be building metro and edge switching gear using a proprietary photonic chip

March 26, 2002

4 Min Read
More on Infinera (née Zepton)

Ultra-stealthy startup Infinera (formerly Zepton Networks) has never said much about what it's doing, but it may have already said too much.

Word on the street is that the company is about to be the subject of a puffy cover piece in a well-known Silicon Valley magazine -- though said article gives very few new details about what the company is doing.

As previously reported in Light Reading, the company has top engineering talent but has kept its technology under wraps (see Zepton Has an $86M War Chest). The only major recent public development is the company changing its name from Zepton to Infinera (hmm, did it sound too much like Zaffire?).

Infinera officials are still tight-lipped about any new details. "We're probably still a way off coming out of stealth mode," says David Welch, Infinera's founder and CTO.

But the scuttlebutt has caused Light Reading to do a bit more investigating -- and it now looks as though Infinera is targeting an add/drop multiplexer system for metropolitan networks. But more on that in a bit.

First a bit of background. Infinera got started in May last year when it scored $50 million from top-tier VCs in a round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (see Zepton: Take Me to Your Leaders). A few months later it took in another $36 million.

Jagdeep Singh, founder and CEO of the company, is known in optical networking circles for helping found Lightera Networks, which was sold to Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN) in 1999 -- and has turned into a smashing success there as the basis of that company's CoreDirector product. Drew Perkins, who was previously a founder and CTO of Lightera, helped Singh in the founding of Infinera. The third founder was Dave Welch, former general manager of the research and technology development group at SDL, which was sold to JDS Uniphase Inc. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU). Singh and Perkins provide the systems savvy at the startup, while Welch is the components guru.

According to several sources, Infinera is developing smaller, optically-switched equipment for the metro and edge of the network. "The edge, that's where you need more switching," says one source, who did not wish to be named. "The edge is always changing, but once you put up a link from New York to San Jose, it's pretty fixed. There's an order of magnitude difference in terms of how often you switch, so the edge is where you're going to make the most cost savings."

Smaller port-count switches up to 32x32 -- which could be created using integrated optical circuits -- would be suitable for switching at the edge, he adds.

In his view, Infinera must have some clever technology for active components such as lasers and amplifiers, with the possible addition of MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) technology. MEMS employs tiny tilting mirros to enable optical switching. "If they're only doing [passive components] they have no edge, because passives are very easy to copy. Active components are still a black art."

Given Welch's background, and the fact that Infinera is working in indium phosphide rather than silicon, this version of events seems very likely. Indium phosphide is the only material in which it is possible to integrate active functions like lasers and amplifiers, along with passive functions such as multiplexing and switching.

Welch would have been involved in a variety of integrated optics work while at SDL, including waveguide-based modulators and multiple lasers integrated on the same chip. Some of that work spawned another startup, Santur Corp., which is developing tunable lasers. Approximately half of Welch's team at SDL is reported to have joined Infinera; the other half went to Santur, which was actually founded first.

As for the MEMS switching, there are ways of integrating MEMS functionality onto a chip. Nanovation (RIP), which was once a poster child for integration in indium phosphide, had developed such an approach using pop-up mirrors that sat in trenches between optical waveguides (see Nanovation Goes Bust). And an Israeli startup, GalayOr Networks, is thought to have a similar technology.

Infinera's executives presented a united front in refusing to comment on any speculation. Light Reading's sources seem confident of their guesswork, but, as they point out "If we knew for sure, we'd be under NDA."

One other interesting factor about Infinera is that it has opted to build a system around its components, rather than simply sell components. This presents a much harder and riskier task. But it also provides a faster route to market for the components. Rather than having to get the product qualified by the systems vendors, who then have to get it qualified by a carrier, the vertically-integrated supplier can cut out the middle man.

Having said that, other startups that wanted a fast track for their components have hit up against problems. Luxcore Networks Inc. for one, started out developing systems and later changed its mind, because it thought it could recognize revenue much faster by just selling components (see Luxcore Pulls a Switcheroo).

Applying this logic to Infinera, it seems that the startup will likely need more than the $86 million it already has, if it's to develop a system sucessfully.

— Pauline Rigby, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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