Acme Software Vets VOIP
Acme Packet, a startup founded in August of 2000, yesterday announced two products designed to help service providers offer interactive voice applications over an IP network.
The first product is the Acme Packet Session Router, a device that routes traffic at Layer 5, which is called the "session" layer of the OSI protocol stack. This device sits in the core of the network, e.g. in a telecom carrier's central office or large point of presence. Although it's located in the same network space as a Layer 3 core IP router, such as Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) GSR or Juniper Networks Inc.'s (Nasdaq: JNPR) M40 or M160, it doesn’t replace those routers, according to Jim Hourihan, vice president of marketing and product management for Acme Packet.
"Layer 3 devices route based on destination reachability and which route has the shortest number of hops," says Hourihan, who used to work for Wellfleet, an IP routing company that was bought by Bay Networks, which was in turn bought by Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT). "But if you’re routing something with high bandwidth requirements, that might not be the best path."
Instead, the IP core router and the Acme "session router" work in tandem to set up the best paths for interactive voice and video traffic. Core IP routers use protocols like Border Gateway Protocol-4 (BGP4) to establish connections along the shortest path, but the Layer 5 session switch uses protocols like the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) to find the most cost-effective path or highest quality of service for the connection.
The company's second new product is the Acme Packet Media Manager, which sits at the edge of the network, performing security functions and policing bandwidth usage to comply with service-level agreements. Again, this product routes traffic at Layer 5 and doesn’t replace the function of a Layer 3 IP router. Hourihan says the product actually plugs into a router and augments its functionality.
So what sorts of applications might Acme's offerings be used for? Let’s say a service provider wants to offer voice-over-IP (VOIP) service to London. It might lease bandwidth from three different providers, and each provider likely charges its own rate. Acme's session-aware routing would enable the service provider to automatically choose the best route based on parameters like network cost, time of day, or network quality. This is something that Layer 3 IP routers or VOIP softswitches are unable to do.
"The real value of this product is its ability to choose which IP route to use, from which provider, at which time," says Tom Jenkins, vice president of consulting at TeleChoice Inc. "Core routers and softswitches can route and prioritize traffic, but not on a dynamic basis using multiple criteria. Routers in particular can’t do the voice-aware routing Acme Packet can do."
There are other applications for "session-aware routing" as well. For example, the company claims it can eliminate the need for Class 4 voice switches when connecting one VOIP network to another. Currently, even if two providers are both using the same voice gateway from Sonus Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SONS), for example, there is no way to connect two VOIP networks without going over the PSTN network. This means traffic must go through a Class 4 switch and be converted to circuit traffic in order to travel to the next VOIP network, where another Class 4 switch is waiting to convert the traffic back into IP packets. Acme claims it can eliminate the inefficiencies of this Class 4 PSTN conversion.
But Telechoice's Jenkins says this scenario is highly unlikely. For one thing, the softswitches in both networks need to be from the same company for this to work. What’s more, both service providers must have the Acme product in their networks.
"This application requires several moons to be in alignment," he says. "You have to worry about what the partner is using, and I think it is less likely to be deployed immediately, because there are too many factors that must be in place."
So far, Acme has raised $16 million in two rounds of funding from three venture capital firms: Menlo Ventures, Canaan Partners, and Beach Head Capital. With only 40 people currently on staff, Hourihan says the $12.5 raised in October 2000 should take the company through the end of this year.
— Marguerite Reardon, Senior Editor, Light Reading