Switch Vendors to Tackle Core Routing

Can ATM switch vendors compete with high-end routers? Alcatel, Lucent, Marconi, and others say 'yes'

December 19, 2001

6 Min Read
Switch Vendors to Tackle Core Routing

A handful of big data switch vendors are readying announcements of equipment that combines both IP routing and ATM switching in products they claim will help carriers take another step toward revamping their core networks.

Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), and Marconi PLC (Nasdaq/London: MONI) have confirmed the imminent release of gear that supports switching and routing in both cell- and packet-based networks. And sources say Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) is waiting in the wings.

Here are the highlights:

  • Alcatel says the second release of its 7670 Routing Switch Platform (RSP), now in customer trials, is set for the end of next week. New features will include support of a multishelf design, in which the basic switching fabric is isolated from the interface cards. This will enable Alcatel to support 450-Gbit/s capacity with OC48 connectivity (OC192 is due late in 2002), as well as combined ATM switching and IP routing.

  • Lucent says its TMX 880 Multiservice Exchange Switch will ship at the end of January 2002, with OC192 support, ATM switching and IP routing, and 160 Gbit/s of capacity. Lucent's not saying anything about trials just yet, however.

  • Marconi says its BXR-48000 is in field trials with one top-tier carrier, with two more trials expected to start before general availability in March 2002. At that time, the product will support OC48 and feature 240 Gbit/s of capacity, as well as ATM switching. By June, it will have OC192 support and 480 Gbit/s of capacity, as well as IP routing capabilities, the vendor says.

  • Nortel is said to be readying its Passport 20000, the next iteration of its multiservice WAN switch, for first-quarter 2002 release. This box will be equipped with OC192, ATM switching and IP routing, and about 160 Gbit/s of full-duplex bandwidth, sources say. Nortel would not comment.

The trend highlights a new sense of urgency among vendors to lay claim to what they see as a multibillion-dollar opportunity to help carriers preserve incoming revenue from existing ATM and frame relay networks, while moving to IP-based future networks -- ones that will be ready to deploy MPLS Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) to control quality of service (see Lucent Unveils Product Lineup and Alcatel ATM Switch Steps Up).

While the upcoming crop of switches doesn't convert traffic between ATM and MPLS, the vendors hope that supporting both concurrently will at least support carriers interested in having both kinds of networks for the foreseeable future.

But analysts say the jury's out on whether the established ATM switch vendors can pull off their plans. This is primarily because they're taking so much on by aiming to support both switching and routing in one platform.

The vendors say this tack is key. If they support only ATM, they'll be unable to offer the throughput and granularity carriers want in future IP networks, they say. If they support IP only, they'll threaten their existing technology -- which they say carriers don't want to do.

"By supporting both switching and routing in one platform, we give carriers a choice," says Mike Lisanti, director of product management for the BXR at Marconi. "We don't dictate to them one way or the other. We avoid cell and packet tax. We provide full Layer 3 functionality. We don't just tunnel ATM over IP packets. This gives us greater efficiency and scaleability."

Despite these arguments, the strategy's pitfalls are clear. Carriers will need to invest in the new equipment, which will be expensive. There's some argument about the relative merits of MPLS itself (see MPLS Gets Lukewarm Reviews and Has the IETF lost it?). And despite claims to the contrary, there will be a point at which the switch vendors position their wares in direct competition with routers from the likes of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR).

Sources say one has only to look at the ailing Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7) to see what's at stake in this strategy (see Avici Warns, Wall Street Scorns). Cisco and Juniper not only have clear dominance in the market, they also have their own core strategies in mind. In addition, Cisco is readying a follow-on to its own Cisco MGX 8850 IP + ATM Multiservice Switch, one that will presumably have capacity equivalent to what the other vendors plan to offer.

"We want to provide core transparency, whether that means packet, cell, or frame," says Don Proctor, VP and general manager of Cisco's Multiservice Switching business unit. Clearly, Cisco's ready to mine its own share of the legacy migration market.

There's also a chance the switch vendors won't be able to pull off the technology fast enough to gain traction. Marconi, for instance, admits that its full roster of core features won't be ready until mid-2002, a full year and half after its first announcement.

The switch vendors also face competition from emerging players like Équipe Communications Corp., which says its Équipe 3200 (É3200) platform allows carriers to move their ATM networks to MPLS functionality without having to install a separate IP infrastructure first (see Équipe: Take the ATM Road to MPLS).

For its part, Équipe, perhaps prudently, is staying out of the routing fray. "We have never said anything about supporting native IP," insists VP of marketing Bob Sullebarger.

Analysts say all this adds up to a major challenge, one the switch vendors will need help to overcome. "The concept of a switch/router is as old as the hills... But if the switch vendors are really serious about routing, they'd better have the inside track with important customers," says Jim Lawrence, program director at Stratecast Partners. "Otherwise, they're asking to become another Ironbridge." (See IronBridge Has Fallen Down, Ironbridge 'Sold for Parts', and Ironbridge's Last Ditch Efforts Fail.)

It's more likely, Lawrence says, that the emerging switches will wind up taking over label switching in MPLS networks, leaving the heavy lifting at Layer 3 to the big router players. This is still a growing opportunity. "Internets, intranets, and extranets are going to have a lot of label-switched paths [to handle]," he says.

Whatever materializes, the established switch vendors seem more than ready to stake their claims, big time, and they're not backing down on the biggest claim of all -- to support IP routing. "We've had a lot of debates internally about what to call [our product]," says Marconi's Lisanti. "ATM switch, router... We will offer carrier-class IP routing."— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like