ImmenStar Joins EPON Race
An Ethernet PON chip startup will launch itself into the market this week, with chips designed by a Force10 Networks Inc. engineer and bold claims about a customer win in Japan.
ImmenStar Inc. is readying a May 31 press conference to introduce itself, playing up the fact that the company has spent two years in stealth mode. The element of surprise is kind of blown, though, as ImmenStar had a previous launch -- on May 18, at the NetEvents Asia Press Summit in Singapore -- and has posted product descriptions to the Web.
The EPON market already seems to have its fill of chips, with competitors including Centillium Communications Inc. ; Passave Inc. , recently acquired by PMC-Sierra Inc. (Nasdaq: PMCS); and Teknovus Inc. And they aren't standing still; Teknovus, in particular, is preparing for the next generation of EPON. (See PMC Preps PON Plans and EPON Evangelists Talk 10-Gig.)
"We're a little bit late, as you can tell," says John Wuu, ImmenStar's CEO. "We watched the Japanese market, and PON started picking up very well. We believed we could do something different."
ImmenStar so far has been on the fast track to catch up. The company got chips produced in one year and claims to have landed a multimillion-dollar order from Japan, with delivery due next month.
ImmenStar isn't saying who the customer is, but one source pegs it as UTStarcom Inc. (Nasdaq: UTSI) -- which, not coincidentally, invested $2 million in ImmenStar, according to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings. (ImmenStar has raised one round of funding, led by Pac-Link Management Corp. , for an undisclosed amount. Wuu notes that UTStarcom owns a "minor" percentage of ImmenStar.)
UTStarcom sells equipment to Softbank BB Corp. for the Yahoo Broadband service in Japan. UTStarcom had been using EPON chips from Passave Inc. , but that relationship allegedly soured when the Passave chips didn't work properly, according to a lawsuit UTStarcom filed last year. (See UTStarcom Sues Passave.)
Passave even considered buying ImmenStar at one point, Wuu acknowledges. "That was a long time ago. They never talked to us directly. They hinted through a different party," he says, noting that he wasn't involved in that conversation himself. Passave officials declined to comment on the whole situation.
Naturally, other competitors are wise to ImmenStar, too. "They're serious, and they're smart guys -- but about two years behind us," says Lowell Lamb, vice president of marketing for Teknovus. "They're a competitor. It's a sign that the market's growing up."
Trying to stand out, ImmenStar packs its chips with features such as quality of service (QOS) with video in mind, and the company claims its chips let carriers guarantee the bandwidth dictated in service-level agreements.
But the most obvious difference in its parts is that the optical line terminal (OLT) chips have four ports, apparently the first of their kind to do so. It's a step that was probably inevitable in PON chips, and it could lead to more densely packed OLTs for central offices. Having four ports also creates a built-in redundancy, as traffic can be shifted to a different port if something goes wrong.
ImmenStar's founders include Eugene Lee, an ASIC designer who was chief architect and employee no. 1 at Force10, the high-end Ethernet switch vendor -- and he's brought three other Force10 employees in his wake. "A lot of people in PON chips have broadband knowledge. They don't have the router/switch domain knowledge," Lee says.
Other key execs come from systems companies as well. CTO Charles Chen hails from Mahi Networks, which got absorbed into Meriton Networks Inc. (See Meriton Buys Mahi Networks.) Wuu is a Bell Labs veteran who was also Telcordia Technologies Inc. managing director for Asia/Pacific and a sales VP at IP Unity Corp. , arriving there when the company acquired EmpowerTel.
Lee developed Force10's first two generations of chips, but because the company sells to such high-end networks, he found himself a bit stranded. "I found out that probably for the next five years, I don't need to do anything," he says. That, plus a discovery that "the edge of the network is more fun, with more challenges," led him to leave Force10 to start ImmenStar.
Lee notes he's held onto his Force10 stock -- and no, he doesn't know when that company will go public either. (See Force10 Revs Revenues.)
Most of ImmenStar's 30 employees work from Santa Clara, Calif., with a handful in Shanghai and one staffer starting up a customer-service office in Taiwan.
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading