Packet Design's Routing 'Spy'

Packet Design says its new product watches and listens to routers in the network. Will carriers listen?

May 21, 2002

3 Min Read
Packet Design's Routing 'Spy'

Packet Design LLC, the research and development company led by former Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) CTO Judy Estrin, announced a new product on Monday that aims to give network operators new insight into the paths taken as the data in their networks travels from one router to another (see Packet Design Looks Into Clouds).

The product, called Route Explorer, helps carriers and ISPs (Internet service providers) fix network problems, review historical data to find where network performance can be improved, and plan future networks, according to Packet Design CEO Judy Estrin.

Rather than just offer a snapshot of the network, Route Explorer purports to "listen" as the routers in a network talk to each other and, after translating the gibberish into pictures, give network operators an ever-changing view of where data is headed and why.

Route Explorer is made of two elements built inside a single network appliance that plugs into a router port. First, there's the Route Recorder, which logs all of the network's routing events into a database. Then there's the Route Explorer, a software tool that takes all of the data from the Route Recorder and creates pictures, charts, and other visual aids to display how a network's traffic changes from minute to minute.

The pictures, of course, make it much easier to spot routing irregularities that could lead to network outages. "This is definitely a case of a picture being worth a thousand words," says John McConnell, president of McConnell Consulting. "The analysis and presentation enable [network operators] to understand the [traffic] situation and see alternatives in a clear, intuitive way."

What makes Route Explorer different is that it can track the IP routing control plane. "All of the [IP network diagnostic tools] that are out there today look at the element perspective -- they only see routers and interfaces and links," says Estrin. "What we're giving network operators is the ability to actually see the routing."

This matters, because part of what makes an Internet Protocol (IP) network superior to a circuit-switched network for moving data also makes it tough to troubleshoot. To wit: It's difficult for network operators to catch routing problems, because each network node makes its own decisions about where to send the data that passes through it.

By studying the paths that data has taken through one service provider's network, Estrin says, Route Explorer has helped the service provider find bugs in a router manufacturer's software and also pinpoint routers in the network that had been set up improperly.

Another Route Explorer perk is that it gives network operators a way of simulating what happens when certain links go down -- so they can test the mettle of their networks without inadvertently causing outages. The product also helps diagnose route flaps, or intermittent failures that are typically difficult to detect.

While Route Explorer's technology sounds impressive, the way it is being delivered to market is unproven. Packet Design, founded as a cross between a research and development company and an incubator for startups, has decided to sell this particular product directly to carriers and ISPs itself, something it hasn't yet done. Rather than spinning Route Explorer off as a separate business or licensing the intellectual property to other companies, Estrin and company have created a new business unit called Packet Design CNS to handle direct sales.

Packet Design employs about 38 people and has raised $29 million since it was started in May 2000 (see Sun Shines on Packet Design). The company has brought on Malay Thaker, formerly the general manager for broadband premises products at Com21 Inc. (Nasdaq: CMTO), to manage the new business unit.

Initially, the Route Explorer system supports the OSPF (Open Shortest Path First) and IS-IS (Intermediate System-to-Intermediate System) routing protocols; support for additional protocols will be added later. The product is priced at $25,000 and is currently in lab trials with carriers. Packet Design says Route Explorer will be generally available during the third quarter of 2002.

— Phil Harvey, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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