Optical/IP Networks

Agere Targets Resilience

CHICAGO -- Supercomm -- Agere Systems Inc. (NYSE: AGR.A) yesterday announced a network processor development targeting a crucial convergence issue -- offering resilience guarantees on different services provided over the same network (see Agere Launches 'Unbreakable Access').

The development is the result of an unusual collaboration spanning not only a couple of Agere's customers, Fujitsu Telecommunications Europe Ltd. and Marconi Corp. plc (Nasdaq: MRCIY; London: MONI), but also their biggest customer as well -- BT Group plc (NYSE: BTY; London: BTA).

BT, in fact, played a large part in driving the project by laying down its requirements for resilience in its 21st Century Network convergence project, for which equipment contracts are about to go out to tender (see BT Moves Ahead With Mega Project).

BT's CTO, Matt Bross, spoke at Agere's launch of its "Unbreakable Access" technology last night here at Supercomm. He pointed out that in the past, carriers like BT would have developed their own solutions to issues such as guaranteeing resilience. By working with Agere as well as its direct suppliers, BT hopes to establish a standards-based solution that may be used by many other carriers, too. This will mean that the technology "is going to come back to us with global economies of scale," Bross said.

Bross added that BT isn't mandating the use of Agere's network processors in equipment bids for its 21st Century Network. It's specifying requirements and allowing vendors to propose solutions. "This is an elegant way of solving the problem but it's not the only way," Bross said.

Agere is adding its "Unbreakable Access" technology to its Advanced PayloadPlus or APP chips, and Fujitsu and Marconi plans to use them in DSLAMs (or what BT calls multiservice access nodes, MSANs). Fujitsu says it already has such DSLAMs in trials with carriers, and Marconi says it's bidding for projects on the basis of using Agere's chips, but has yet to produce a product based on them.

It's worth noting that BT's main suppliers of this kit to date have been Fujitsu and Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), not Marconi, which only recently became a DSLAM supplier. Alcatel wasn't available overnight to comment on why it hadn't been involved in the development project with Agere and BT, or whether it had an alternative solution to BT's resilience requirements.

In order to understand Agere's development, a little background might be helpful. Up until fairly recently, the guts of most DSLAMs were simple ATM switches, with no facility for looking inside packets to see what applications were being carried by different sessions. The quality control (often based on Agere's traffic manager chips) applied to the whole connection to the customer. As a result, carriers could only offer plain vanilla, best-effort Internet access to DSL subscribers.

Network processors such as Agere's APPs do deep packet inspection and can be used to identify what service is being provided to customers. This makes it possible to offer voice, video, and other applications having different quality-of-service requirements, over the same network. However, this raises the stakes on resilience, because users face losing all of their services at the same time when and if the network goes down.

Bross wants to discourage users from addressing this issue themselves, splitting their requirements between two or more carriers, by offering resilience guarantees for an extra charge, on a per-service basis. In other words, users could choose to pay extra to make sure that their phone service never went down, but take a risk with video services, for example.

Agere's "Unbreakable Access" technology does this by tagging packets belonging to sessions where users have paid for resilience guarantees, and setting up a backup path across the network, between DSLAMs, for tagged sessions. This backup path can carry a duplicate stream of packets so that the switch-over is ultrafast in the event of a line failure. Alternatively, it can be used to carry traffic without resilience guarantees, which would get dropped in the event of the backup being brought into use, according to Eugene Scuteri, general manager of Agere's optical networking solutions business unit.

Agere claims that the technology will enable carriers to reduce operational expenses considerably, by only providing protection when customers have paid for it.

All of this appears to depend on all equipment recognizing Agere's tags, or generating them in the case of equipment at customer sites. Scuteri says Agere plans to promote its technology as a global standard, noting that it has a track record of doing this.

Marconi's chief marketing officer, Martin Harriman, says other aspects of Agere's APPs are equally important to his company. In particular, Harriman likes the "protocol-agnostic matrix within the device," which promises to enable Marconi to replace the ATM guts of its Access Nodes with something that can adapt to the emergence of new technologies in broadband networks, such as Ethernet.

Andy Stevenson, Fujitsu's general manager, points out that cost is still the critical issue with DSLAMs. "Greater than 90 percent of the cost is in the silicon," he adds. Right now, Fujitsu is using Agere's APPs for the main processor card in its DSLAMs, but it's using a lower-cost, lower-spec traffic manager chip from Wintegra Inc. on interface cards.

Agere's "Unbreakable Access" technology is on display at its Supercomm booth, number 24800.

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading

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