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May 10, 2004
Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) is releasing its long-awaited Neptune router today, and while it does most of what's been anticipated, some of the key features aren't coming to market just yet.
Whether that's a handicap depends on how well Nortel has gauged the market for multiservice edge routers and what weight carriers put on Nortel's history as a telecom network provider.
The wraps come off today in Miami, where Nortel is holding its annual conference for service provider customers. Nortel has a press conference scheduled for 10:00 a.m. Eastern time. Greg Mumford, Nortel's CTO, is hosting a parallel press conference in London.
The Multiservice Provider Edge (MPE) 9000 line, as Neptune is formally known, is the result of a year's work from a 250-engineer team split between Ottawa and Massachusetts. The goal was to build a new box from scratch, one that reflects the Layer 2 functions of Nortel's Shasta and Passport product lines while adding strong Layer 3 support.
Such is the nature of the multiservice edge router, a new product category resulting from carriers' migration toward a converged Internet Protocol (IP)/Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network core. The role of the multiservice edge box is to take disparate traffic feeds -- Frame Relay, Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), Ethernet -- from the edge and pack them into MPLS form so they can be uniformly transported across the core.
The job doesn't quite fit what prior routers and switches were designed for, so equipment vendors have had to get busy. Startups popped up to address the multiservice edge; Laurel Networks Inc. and Hammerhead Systems Inc. remain independent, while TiMetra Networks and Vivace Networks were acquired by Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA), respectively. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) continues to push its 7600 series routers for this market, while Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) created a new router line, the M320. (See Alcatel & TiMetra Seal the Deal, Tellabs Snags Vivace for $135M, and Juniper Hatches the M320.)
Nortel has stayed quiet, although rumors surfaced of a newly minted box for the multiservice edge. Hints dropped by Nortel helped fuel the fire (see Nortel's Neptune Surfaces and Nortel's Soft Sell).
The company had considered going the acquisition route but decided the multiservice edge requirements were too new even for startups to fill.
"A lot of small companies had some good designs, but we didn't find a lot of products that could scale the way we needed them to and also had carrier-grade reliability," says Sue Spradley, Nortel's president of wireline networks. Partnering -- as Nortel did with Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7) for core networks -- didn't make sense either, because Nortel officials felt they could build a better box than what they were finding on the market.
Thus was Neptune born. It's an in-house job that borrows from the lessons of deploying Shasta and Passport, Spradley says. Neptune also incorporated routing code from third-party provider NextHop Technologies Inc., a way of making up for the gap between Nortel's Layer 3 expertise and that of Cisco or Juniper.
The first Neptune box, and the largest one planned so far, is the MPE 9500, which is scheduled for release in October and already has a few carriers signed up. Equant (NYSE: ENT; Paris: EQU) is testing the box in its labs already. Telus Corp. (NYSE: TU; Toronto: T) and Infonet Services Corp. (NYSE: IN) are prepared to begin trials, although start dates haven't been determined, Spradley says.
Inside the box
First, some specifics. The MPE 9500 fits in one third of a 7-foot rack and has a switching capacity of 40 Gbit/s, with future upgrades pushing it to 80 Gbit/s. A smaller version, the 9200, is planned for the first half of 2005.
The 80-Gbit/s switching capacity puts Nortel on a par with Laurel's ST200 box, but it's behind the 160 Gbit/s inside Juniper's M320 or the whopping 320 Gbit/s in Tellabs' 8800. None of that is a problem, Nortel claims. "Without question, customers all said the sweet spot is in this 40-Gbit/s range," says Jake Power, Nortel's director of marketing. "When you're talking about hundreds of Gbit/s, it gets expensive and doesn't scale down."
The MPE uses a midplane, meaning it has card slots on the front and back. The 9500's front has room for 12 10-Gbit/s cards or 24 "half-height" cards of up to 2.5 Gbit/s each. Twelve slots adorn the back for control-plane cards or up to eight data-services cards, which add extra routing tables or traffic-management capabilities.
The package is aimed at more than just Shasta and Passport customers; in fact, Nortel's taken pains to make the MPE fit into networks using Cisco and Juniper routers. "Which means, yes, we took the Cisco CLI [command-line interface] and fit it into these," Spradley says.
To compete against the two routing giants, Nortel hopes to lean on its long telecom history, playing up the MPE as a box built by a carriers' vendor rather than a data-communications vendor. "They've got the IP mind share. What they don't have is the IP mind share when it comes to carrier-grade capability and carrier-grade reliability," Spradley says.
Along those lines, the MPE has the usual redundancy and resiliency features. It's also got a multiprocessor control plane; that is, the microprocessors on multiple cards can split the work of administering the box's operating system. This means operators can add processing power by adding cards. In the computing world, this architecture is also used to segregate jobs to particular processors, sometimes to quarantine test code to a particular processor, for example. Nortel officials hint they're considering the same thing.
"It gives us some interesting possibilities in terms of isolation of key [tasks] on a processor," says Scott McFeely, vice president and general manager of Nortel's wireline business. But he adds that the multiprocessor control plane is seen mostly as a scaleability feature.
Some key features of the MPE 9500 won't be ready by October, however.
10-Gbit/s interfaces: While the MPE is outfitted for them, actual cards won't come until a later, unspecified date. That likely puts Nortel behind the 10-Gbit/s ports announced for Alcatel, Cisco, Juniper, and Laurel's multiservice edge routers.
B-RAS (broadband remote access server): Nortel's literature has noted this as a must-have, but it won't be had until at least early 2005, Power says. That's a step up from Alcatel, which has no B-RAS support in sight, but it's a step behind B-RAS believers such as Laurel.
Layer 2 interworking:Point-to-point links for Frame Relay, ATM, and Ethernet will be supported in October, but interworking among the three will come in a later release, Power says. Competitors are quick to jump on that. "They're nowhere close to adding that," says one competitor who requested anonymity. "They're not relevant to the Layer 2 infrastructure at this point."
The staggered release of features could become a strike against the MPE, some believe.
"The challenge is, they're setting an expectation that they're integrating all these traditional ATM and Frame Relay capabilities and MPLS capabilities and B-RAS. Looking at what they're delivering compared to what they set expectations for, there's a gap," says the Nortel competitor.
All this talk of Layer 2 features stirs up the question of whether MPE will eventually eclipse the Passport and Shasta product lines. Nortel says no, because those two lines are needed for customers that are still expanding their older networks.
"If you're looking at traditional Layer 2 Frame Relay/ATM services, you wouldn't use MPE for that," Power says. "We're still investing heavily in those two platforms."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
Archives of Related Light Reading Webinars:
Carrier VOIP: How to Build Reliable Networks
Edge Routing: Evolution and Economics
Multiservice Edge Platforms: Empowering 21st Century Services – US Event
Interworking: Making the transition to MPLS
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