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Nortel's Optical Ethernet BlitzNortel's Optical Ethernet Blitz

What does Nortel see as the key to reducing carrier costs? Ethernet metro networks UPDATED 1/28 2:45 PM

January 28, 2002

5 Min Read
Nortel's Optical Ethernet Blitz

Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) today unveiled a series of products geared to making Ethernet the lingua franca of its metro optical product line (see Nortel Upgrades Metro Kit).

The move clearly signals Nortel's continued faith that Ethernet will take over the metro space. It's an aggressive bid, as well, to compete with rival Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) in getting a piece of what it sees as the hottest new business opportunity in telecom.

The new products include a new Layer 2 switch with DWDM capabilities (the OPTera Metro 8000), enhancements to an existing switch that supports Sonet rings and DWDM (the OPTera Metro 3500), and an edge device that works with both of these new products and with other Nortel gear at the customer premises (the OPTera Metro 1200).

Nortel's making several claims about its new wares:

  • Covers "all bases." The new products round out Nortel's goal of enabling Ethernet on all metro facilities -- Sonet, DWDM, and regular non-Sonet fiber -- the vendor says. The existing OPTera Metro 3500, for instance, supports DWDM and Nortel's version of RPR (resilient packet ring) technology, which it recently penned with Cisco (see RPR Moves Forward). The new 8000 adds Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) to the mix, and the OPTera Metro 1200 (OM 1200) supports regular fiber.

  • Uses common interface. All the products work with the same management and provisioning software as the rest of Nortel's metro Ethernet products, including the Business Policy Switch 2000, the OPTera Metro 5000, and the Passport 8600. This is key, Nortel says, to making provisioning faster and more efficient, thus reducing operating expenses for carriers.

  • Enables VPN for dummies. Nortel says its new gear speeds up the rollout of Ethernet-based virtual private network (VPN) services by an order of magnitude -- and eliminates the need for expensive personnel to laboriously assign VPNs from a high-end router.

    It does this by introducing a new architecture for VPNs, one in which the OM 1200 creates VPNs for customers via a single label-switched path at the central office, established via the 8000 and 3500 switches. The OM 1200 also takes care of ensuring that customer VLAN (virtual LAN) addresses aren't put into the carrier network. "This method is ten times faster than having a guy who's paid $150,000 ride around in a service provider van all day," says Stephen Garcia, director of optical Ethernet marketing at Nortel.

Of all these claims, the one about VPNs most intrigues David Passmore, research director at the Burton Group consultancy. "They're offering an alternative to RFC 2547 and the Martini draft," he maintains. "They have some very interesting ideas here."

RFC 2547 is a proposal from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) whereby Layer 3 IP traffic would be mapped to BGP (border gateway protocol) routes, using virtual paths through the routed network with specially labeled packets. The Martini draft, also in the works at the IETF, would set up VPNs using Layer 2.

Both tacks, Passmore says, result in the creation of many label-switched paths among devices, ones that are complicated to set up. What Nortel proposes, he says, is a single, huge, common label-switched path that is only assigned specific VPN pathways at the customer premises.

While Nortel's approach is proprietary, the vendor says it's being worked on at the IETF. "Other vendors recognize the advantages of this approach," Garcia says. "We're just the first to implement it."

One thing isn't yet clear: how Nortel's VPN technique matches the security inherent in other approaches. Nortel says that the OM 1200 encapsulates customer traffic, preserving customer separation for data. Additional encryption can be provided at the network edge.

Most of Nortel's claims for its new gear are aimed squarely at Cisco, which wasn't available at press time with a response (stay tuned). In a report published this past fall by the Optical Oracle, Light Reading's subscription research service, Cisco was identified as the only major vendor so far with a comprehensive market presence in both optical Ethernet edge routing/switching and transport. Nortel has played primarily in the transport area up to now (see Optical Ethernet Rules).

This announcement's geared to changing that profile. But it will take some time to determine how effectively Nortel is able to compete against Cisco, particularly in terms of provisioning and monitoring services at the customer premises.

Nortel's OM 1200 isn't scheduled for general availability until April 2002, with the enhanced 3500 and the 8000 slated to ship in May and June, respectively.

While Cisco unveiled key pieces of its metro Ethernet portfolio in December (see Cisco Offers New Catalysts for MANs), some vital portions, such as the ONT (optical network terminator) 1031 (a CPE device that links optical Ethernet metro services to customer sites) and its management system, the Ethernet Subscriber Solution Engine 1105, aren't going to be generally available until March 2002, according to Cisco.

Meanwhile, some startups are making progress in the metro Ethernet space. Last week, Atrica Inc. demonstrated a carrier Ethernet platform with 50 millisecond restoration time, claiming it was the first such Ethernet platform to offer this (see Atrica Speeds Restoration).

Some analysts, however, raise questions about the overall impact of optical Ethernet in the near term. "Generating revenue via Ethernet is still a business case that's being evaluated," says Keith Mayberry, analyst with RHK Inc.

Mayberry says this announcement clearly puts Nortel in line with Cisco in aiming to advance optical Ethernet over a range of metro architectures, but it's not certain what the tradeoffs will be for carriers that will have to revamp their facilities to take advantage of the new gear of either vendor.

"The rollout of Ethernet will be selective," he maintains, noting that carriers will need to see distinct advantages and be sure they're not cannibalizing the revenues from legacy services such as circuit-switched leased lines.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

Editor's Note: Light Reading is not affiliated with Oracle Corporation.

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