Chiaro Debuts a Big, Bad Router

Chiaro's Enstara has impressive technology, but the startup faces crazy odds in the service provider market

May 21, 2003

5 Min Read
Chiaro Debuts a Big, Bad Router

It's the spring of 2003 and there's a capital spending slump that shows few signs of roaring back. What kind of startup would think to launch a cutting-edge core router product?

It seems a bit crazy, but that's exactly what Chiaro Networks did this week when it unveiled its Enstara product to mild applause and stifled yawns (see Chiaro Intros IP Routing Platform).

It could be the case of promising technology delivered at an unfortunate time. The technology muscle powering Chiaro's big, fast IP router is impressive. But Chiaro has significant economic hurdles to cross if it wants to survive, much less thrive.

A few weeks ago, Chiaro touted its switching technology, called Optical Phased Array, that helps it switch a large number of ports at nanosecond speeds. This technology, which makes up the guts of the Enstara, is combined with several other technologies to make a system that is covered by some 25 technology patents (and counting).

Chiaro says its router can save carriers money in their core networks because it's so fast and so scaleable that it eliminates the need for an aggregation layer between the network's core and its edge. The company is also touting the system's reliability, saying it can withstand hardware and software failures by switching over to redundant resources without dropping packets (see IP Routing Gets a Restart). This infrastructure allows so-called "hitless" maintenance as well, meaning that you don't have to stop routing in order to tinker with or upgrade the machine.

Such strides are important, says David Newman, president of Network Test. "Service providers like to count uptime by excluding maintenance windows for upgrades. Customers want uptime counted by the clock on the wall. Anything a device can do to enhance uptime is definitely to the good."

Chiaro is also talking up its router's flexibility. The system comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. For small nodes, there's a single chassis, 10-slot version. In bigger nodes, one Chiaro router can comprise several refrigerator-sized boxes, which can be split up over different floors or rooms, the parts connected by optical links. In its largest iteration, the Enstara can scale to up to 315 10-Gbit/s equivalent ports (6.3 Tbit/s of routing capacity in both directions).

So can Chiaro's big, bad router really handle the jobs that would be required of it in a large carrier network? Well, we still don't know for sure. No large carriers have bought the box yet, and the two customers that Chiaro has announced aren't running traditional telecom networks.

Chiaro's first customer is the OptIPuter, a five-year, $13.5 million grid computing project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Its second customer, announced Monday, is San Francisco's IP Networks Inc., a privately held bandwidth provider. IPN evaluated Chiaro's router for two years before deploying, the company says, but details on the configuration, the number of units purchased, and the size of the deal were not disclosed.

There's also the matter of Chiaro's box lagging its competitors in some areas. In its initial configuration, the Enstara is only capable of supporting 100 Gbit/s of I/O (input/output) in a single system and only 200 Gbit/s in a rack, according to a report by Joe McGarvey of Current Analysis. "Though the Enstara can scale up to 315 OC192 ports from day one, it would take roughly 15 racks of telco space to achieve that capacity," he writes. He notes that, in their respective half-rack configurations, the Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) T-640 offers 320 Gbit/s of I/O capacity, and the forthcoming Procket Networks Inc. Pro/8812 will offer 480 Gbit/s of I/O in a half-rack system.

In its Richardson, Texas, offices, Chiaro will proudly walk you through a demo of one of its systems outperforming a Cisco GSR 12000 system in a 64,000-user network when both routers are faced with outages of one sort or another. Routing experts, however, say beating a decade-old incumbent isn't that impressive. "It'd be more interesting to compare Chiaro to vendors who are pushing high reliability and high scaleability routing -- folks such as Avici Systems Inc. and Alcatel SA," says Geoff Bennett, director of Light Reading University.

Chiaro did go through the trouble of hiring BTexact Technologies to put the product through its paces and brazenly says it will release the full results of the tests to whoever requests them.

BTexact's comments were (surprise) very positive. In the test's executive summary, BTexact's technicians wrote that the product is "very stable and easy to use." Some key carrier features, however, such as Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), quality of service, and multicast capabilities weren't included in the test.

Will the core router market be large enough to support another startup? Chiaro CEO Ken Lewis says carrier deployment decisions on adding more functions and capacity to core networks will start happening this year – and he's confident that Chiaro is in the running. "We feel we're on the leading edge of a window that's just opening up now," he says, while tugging at the buckles of his straightjacket.

"I think the barriers to entry in the remainder of the core market are very high," says LRU's Bennett. "Put yourself in the position of a buyer at Verizon Communications Inc. or Qwest Communications International Inc.. Why would you take the risk of not buying Cisco Systems Inc. or Juniper? What would make you try another vendor?"

— Phil Harvey, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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