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Corsa Looks to Bring SDN to the WAN

Mitch Wagner
3/26/2015

Fresh from a $16.5 million funding round, Corsa Technology is looking to bring SDN to the WAN using its own custom hardware.

Corsa Technology Inc. 's DP6000 product line is designed for carriers and enterprises facing an onslaught of bandwidth demand, driven by video, big data, the Internet of Things, and other network apps. "The growth is exponential, but they can't afford to scale to meet the demand," says Bruce Gregory, CEO of the Ottawa, Canada, company.

To help meet that need, Corsa takes an unusual approach, building custom hardware for SDN. "It's a little strange, I realize," Gregory says.

He's not kidding. The classic definition of SDN uses standard software interfaces on merchant silicon, allowing network operators to swap out switches from different vendors and avoid lock-in.

Since then, vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) have co-opted the SDN term to describe programmable software controlling network operators' existing equipment. (See The Three Faces of SDN.)

Building custom hardware for SDN doesn't make sense -- at least on the face of it. It's like kosher bacon, or jumbo shrimp -- an oxymoron.

It might not make sense, but it's necessary, Corsa argues. The reason custom hardware is needed with SDN is that existing SDN solutions simply aren't up to the task of managing traffic on the WAN. "Big iron" isn't designed for SDN, while merchant silicon doesn't scale to the needed traffic.

Existing SDN products are designed for the data center, not intercity, metro connections and the emerging market of data center interconnects for cloud providers, Gregory says. That's where Corsa comes in.

Corsa's DP6000 Data Plane products are designed to combine the throughput of big iron with SDN programmability and configurability, Gregory says. They're based on Xilinx Inc. (Nasdaq: XLNX) Field Programmable Gate Arrays, which offer the programmability benefits and performance of ASICs with faster time to market.

Corsa uses the OpenFlow 1.3 interface to allow it to be used with any industry standard SDN controller. On the port side, the interface is Ethernet, and can be configured using software as an MPLS edge router, Layer 2-3 switch, BGP router, or load balancer.

Products scale to a high-end model with four 100Gbit/s and 24 10Gbit/s ports.

Mitigating risk
Isn't it risky for a network operator to go with Corsa? The company's customers are betting on a two-year-old startup without getting the freedom from vendor lock-in that comes with merchant silicon.

That's an issue, concedes Gregory. But the recent fund-raising round should provide "a level of comfort that we have the ability to stay in the game a long time," Gregory says.

Last week, Corsa announced an oversubscribed, $16.5 million Series B funding round led by new investor Roadmap Capital, with participation from all previous investors including Celtic House Venture Partners , BDC Venture Capital and an undisclosed technology company. Total funding is $22.6 million.

Risk is "a question for every disruptive company. You need to find early access people who are willing to take a risk," Gregory says.

Corsa's earliest customers, 18 months ago, were taking "a huge risk," but the company now has a big enough body of work, with systems that have been qualified and certified, to mitigate the danger.

Moreover, customers need Corsa's solutions to solve their WAN bandwidth problems, Gregory says.

Gregory declined to name customers, but said they include research and education institutions, service providers and enterprises. Customers have been in pre-production deployments over the past six months, and are now moving to production. General availability for the products is scheduled for this month.


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Corsa has 30 employees and plans to double the payroll, adding headcount in engineering, sales, and marketing.

Corsa has four co-founders, with more than 20 years of experience in companies including successful startups.

Benefit claims
Corsa achieves high performance by supporting millions of flows on 100Gbit/s ports, and the ability to update flow tables quickly, to support tens of thousands of flows per second versus hundreds for other solutions. Corsa uses the multi-table implementation of OpenFlow 1.3 to support hierarchical rules for improved performance.

But Corsa's most important advantage is its support for deep packet buffers -- 30-50 millisecond buffering per port R line speed, compared with microseconds for competitors. Other vendors' lesser buffer capacity isn't an issue on the LAN because distances are short, but network operators pay a price in dropped packets on the LAN, Gregory says.

Corsa is stretching the definition by combining SDN with custom hardware. But that kind of rule-breaking won't matter if Corsa can succeed in its mission of speeding up customer WANs.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

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Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
3/26/2015 | 10:55:40 AM
Re: Like Jumbo Shrimp....
I'd be interested in finding out how a carrier takes precautions when dedicating infrastructure to a startup like this one. What happens if Corsa goes out of business in a couple of years? Or the technology otherwise dead-ends?
Ray@LR
[email protected]
3/26/2015 | 10:51:15 AM
Like Jumbo Shrimp....
Wow, this is a real gamble... but it is gambles such as this that can change the direction of a sector and make a name for a company -- it really needs to be pout through its paces by an independnet third party.
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