Procket Gets Unstealthy

Enters battle against core router players Cisco and Juniper, says unique software and hardware give it an edge

April 9, 2003

6 Min Read
Procket Gets Unstealthy

After four years in stealth mode and $272 million in funding, Procket Networks Inc. is finally ready to talk.

With big names like routing guru Tony Li and former Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) executive Bill Lynch on board, there has been much speculation about the company. Some said it was building a huge core router to take on Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) (see Procket's Strategy Taking Shape). Others said it was building an edge router (see Is Procket Heading Toward the Edge?).

The company is actually doing both. Each of the three boxes in the PRO/8800 series has the capability of being either an edge router or a core router, depending on what software is loaded onto it.

“The power of the product is that the same DNA is used across the whole portfolio of products,” says Randall Kruep, CEO of the company.

He claims the main differentiators lie in the company’s unique approach to developing its software and hardware.

Having helped develop routing software at Cisco and Juniper, Tony Li, Procket’s main software architect, avoided some of the problems that currently limit those routing codes today, according to Kruep. For one, Procket avoided off-the-shelf software code, such as Gate D or BSD. Instead, Li and his team developed source code from scratch. As a result, the company was able to put each routing function, including individual routing protocols, onto its own processes.

The modular software code offers many advantages, says Kruep. It provides carriers flexibility in terms of which features to add and when. And it allows them to troubleshoot software bugs more easily. It also ensures an easier and stabler environment for loading software upgrades.

According to Network Strategy Partners LLC, in-service software upgrades account for 22 percent of network downtime per year. This is because most routers -- namely Cisco’s -- run monolithic software code, which means every function runs on the same process. Whenever an upgrade or patch is needed, the entire IOS routing code is reloaded onto the router, which often causes other parts of the software to fail.

“Upgrading a Cisco router is like trying to fix the engine of a jet while it's still flying,” says Dorian Kim, director of IP engineering and network development for the global IP business unit of NTT/Verio Inc. Kim and his team have been testing Procket’s software for almost two years. Verio is still evaluating the Procket gear, says Kim, but because it likes to dual-source vendors, it has already deployed Juniper T640 routers in its core (see Juniper Goes Terabit With the T640).

Juniper’s software, Junos, is semi-modular in design, but Procket contends it didn’t modularize far enough. While it has separated some of the routing functions onto different processes, it still has bundled individual routing protocols together.

Another major software difference is that the Procket code is completely portable, meaning it can be loaded onto other IP devices. The company already has plans to port the code to strategic partners. This is a completely different strategy from that pursued by Cisco and Juniper, which do not share code with anyone. What’s more, Procket's software is self-monitored and can fix minor problems without bringing down an entire device.

The company has also taken an innovative approach to developing hardware. Instead of burning the routing functionality and features into ASICs, the company has leveraged Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) microprocessor technology to build high-speed packet processors. Unlike the older generation of network processors, VLSI microprocessors are highly integrated, allowing for packet processing speeds up to 40 Gbit/s on 40-byte packets.

Procket attributes this performance gain to the fabrication process used in developing VLSI chips. It allows more transistors and memory onto chips than is possible with current ASIC designs.

Because VLSI microprocessors are completely programmable, adding new features can be done much more quickly. The current ASIC development cycle is about 18 months. VLSIs can be programmed within days or weeks.

Procket’s platform comes in three sizes. The single-slot PRO/8801 router is shipping now. It offers 80 Gbit/s of total capacity and can support up to 40 high-speed interfaces in an eighth of a seven-foot telco rack; it starts at $65,000 for a base system. The 12-slot PRO/8812 routers will ship in the second quarter of 2003. It features 960 Gbit/s of total capacity and can forward 1.2 billion packets per second; it's priced at $237,000 for a base configuration. The four-slot PRO/8804 will be available later this year. All PRO/8000 Series routers support a wide range of interfaces, including OC3c, OC12c, OC48c, OC192c, Gigabit Ethernet, and 10-Gigabit Ethernet.

So far, Procket has been getting traction with customers. Kruep claims the company is in trials with 20 carriers throughout the world, and it names three customers: NTTPC Communications Inc., NTT/Verio, and PacketExchange. But some experts are skeptical that carriers will really bite on the company’s claim that it can lower capital and operational costs by 65 percent.

“The techie in me loves what they are doing,” says Dave Passmore, research director at the Burton Group. “But when I put on my business hat, I’m concerned whether their differentiators will really matter enough for service providers to migrate away from the Ciscos and Junipers of the world.”

Indeed, it won’t be an easy road for Procket, taking on the two Goliaths of the IP routing business. The core router market, which Procket will target first, is relatively small. In 2002, core IP routers generated $1.4 billion in revenue, according to Dell'Oro Group, the market research firm. That’s only about 2.9 percent of the entire worldwide carrier capital expenditure for 2002. Compare this to spending on optical and Sonet gear, which made up 30 to 40 percent of total capex. Even during the Internet boom, IP routing gear only generated $2.7 billion in 2001.

Other startups -- like Pluris and Ironbridge Networks -- that have tried to take on Juniper and Cisco have failed miserably. Even public players have found little success against them. Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), and Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) have all cancelled their core routing products. And Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7) have gained little marketshare over the past several quarters.

Coincidentally or not, another core router player, Caspian Networks, is also coming out of stealth mode today (more on that later).

— Marguerite Reardon, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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