Sycamore in Standards Setback

Its ODSI initiative could be close to committing hara-kiri

August 30, 2000

5 Min Read
Sycamore in Standards Setback

DENVER -- Efforts by Sycamore Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SCMR) to gather industry support for its way of automating tomorrow’s telecom networks has suffered a significant setback.

Its way of doing things was rejected by other vendors at an August 17th meeting of the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF). And that’s dented Sycamore’s prospects of being first to market with standards-based software that enables edge equipment like routers to set up and tear down connections on demand over optical backbones.

It might also mark the beginning of the end for the Optical Domain Service Interconnect coalition (ODSI), a Sycamore-led group of vendors that was set up earlier this year to try and speed up the development of standards in this area (see Third Front Opens on Standards War). It was ODSI’s proposals that got rejected at the recent OIF meeting, and that setback has led to some members questioning whether it’s worth carrying on.

News of these developments have only materialized in the past day or so, when the OIF got around to publishing a press release about its meeting, which was held in Barcelona. (Light Reading has only been able to obtain a paper version of the release, so we can’t post the full text or provide a link. You’re not missing much.)

Here’s the bones of the argument. Right now, the blueprint for automating next-generation Internet backbones is being hammered out by vendors and carriers in a number of standards bodies. There’s a lot at stake and everybody’s out to promote their own interests. Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) is exercising its influence via the OIF, which it founded together with Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN). Sycamore’s hoping to pull things its way via ODSI, a club of smaller players.

Much of the standards work centers around extending MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) for use in optical networks. MPLS was invented to help avoid congestion in packet-based networks like the Internet. It provides a way for edge equipment to set up virtual tunnels across telecom backbones, so that intermediate equipment can just wave packets through rather than holding everything up while they check the addresses inside individual packets. Right now, just about every developer of an optical switch is charging ahead with developing provisioning software that anticipates the likely extensions to the MPLS standards. At present, Sycamore is probably in the lead in this respect (see Sycamore Ships Its Optical Switch). But that means that it’s at the greatest risk of rolling out software that ends up being out of whack with standards when they eventually arrive.

Sycamore’s answer to this has been to set up ODSI to try and accelerate the development of a standard user network interface (UNI) – the connection between edge equipment and the optical backbone. The idea is that this will jumpstart everything, just as it did with frame relay and ATM developments. Carriers can start reaping the benefits of automated provisioning while the standards for the core of the network are still under development.

Of course, it also helps Sycamore take advantage of being early to market. And once carriers started deploying Sycamore software, it would be in their interests to support Sycamore’s efforts to control the direction of future standards.

This scheme came unstuck at the August 17th meeting of the OIF, when signaling protocols for the optical MPLS UNI were discussed. Cisco and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) got their proposals -- RSVP (resource reservation protocol) and CR-LDP (constraint routed – label distribution protocol) – accepted, while ODSI’s proposal to also include its TCP-based protocol was kicked out by an overwhelming majority.

Sycamore says it's not the end of the world. Amy Copley, a senior product manager, describes it as “little more than an annoyance”. She maintains that ODSI’s protocol addresses requirements of telecom operators that aren’t covered by RSVP and CR-LDP. ODSI failed to get this message over at the OIF meeting, she says. “We didn’t have the right people there.”

”It doesn’t mean that it’s gone away forever,” Copley adds. ODSI is going to plow ahead with its existing program of interoperability trials while it decides whether to drop its proposal altogether or take another crack at getting it adopted at the next OIF meeting in January.

That may be putting a brave face on things. The setback has led to a discussion of future direction among the members of ODSI’s mailing list, according to Joe Berthold, chairman of the OIF’s technical committee. Observers also point out that ODSI has failed to attract support from heavyweight vendors and carriers, the folk that call the shots in standards bodies. "None of the big router players -- Cisco and Juniper -- participated in it, so it has limited use. OIF got all of the serious players, while ODSI got a bunch of wannabes," says Steve Alexander, Ciena’s Senior VP and CTO.

Others are more charitable, pointing out that a lot of ODSI’s other work has already been adopted by the OIF. It’s also doubtful whether the OIF would have started work on UNI signaling protocols if ODSI hadn’t been set up. It forced the OIF to address the issue. “The original idea was that ODSI would commit suicide once it had achieved its goals,” says an industry executive who requested anonymity. “They’re almost there,” he adds. -- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading

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