Alcatel Takes On Juniper

Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA: Paris: CGEP:PA) is turning partners into competitors as it introduces two new routers today: the 7770 Routing Core Platform and 7420 Edge Services router (see Alcatel Boxes Clever ).

In spite of being a Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) reseller, Alcatel is aiming its terabit router at Juniper’s core product, the M160, and it’s pitting the new 7240 against Juniper’s M5 and M10 edge routers.

It wasn’t too long ago that Alcatel also had reseller agreements with Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), the dominant vendor in the router market. Back in the mid-1990s the company resold Cisco routers as part of its turnkey solutions.

“We’ll maintain our relationship with Juniper,” says Yves LeMaiter, VP of marketing and business development for core data products at Alcatel. “But for a large, scaleable router we will propose the 7770 instead.” Alcatel has wanted its own routing products both in the core and at the edge for sometime. Back in 1999 the company bought Xylan and Packet Engines, two enterprise switching vendors, and it's combined the IP expertise in these two companies with knowledge from its optical group to build its own terabit router.

This contrasts with the strategies of two of its rivals, Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) and Siemens AG (Frankfurt: SIE), who've tried to take a short cut to market by acquiring router startups.

Both have run into problems. Lucent's acquisition of Nexabit has been far from a roaring success (see Lucent Faces "Exodus of Nexabit Staff" and Lucent Cleans Up Core Routing }. It's still struggling to get Nexabit's terabit router accepted by service providers. Siemens has had an even worse experience. Its spinoff, Unisphere Solutions Inc. (Nasdaq: UNSP) had to scrap plans based on its acquisition of Argon (see Unisphere Trips, Stumbles ). It's now developing a new product from scratch.

All of this goes to show how difficult it is build a terabit router. “It’s not the same as building an enterprise router,” says Emeralda Swartz, director of strategic marketing for Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7). “This is a drastically different product that requires a lot of time and effort on both the hardware and software sides.”

It's also tough to penetrate a market that's dominated by Cisco and Juniper (see Cisco, Juniper, Lock Down Internet Router Market ) -- another reason Alcatel is reselling Juniper routers while it gets its act together.

Once the new 7770 platform is released, the company plans to discontinue selling Juniper routers to new customers. Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) and Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERICY), which have also acquired enterprise IP switch expertise, are also reselling Juniper routers until they come up with their own solutions.

So why build a core router when you can resell one of the market leaders? For one, Alcatel says that by building its terabit router from scratch, it can eventually integrate management and control features with its optical transport products. That's something it says it could never do with Juniper’s router.

Secondly, the 7770 is designed to be more scaleable than what is currently offered from Juniper and Cisco, says the vendor. These other routers use a central switch fabric design, which means that adding more capacity means adding additional chassis.

Alcatel says it has taken a distributed approach to its design, which allows service providers to add capacity modularly, scaling from 640 Gbit/s to 5 Tbit/s in one chassis. But Alcatel isn’t the only vendor using a distributed architecture. Avici is already shipping a product with a similar design that also scales to 5 Tbit/s.

“It sounds like they’ve been reading our marketing slides,” says Avici's Swartz.

And like Juniper and Avici, Alcatel says its terabit router will be able to forward packets at line rate regardless of what kinds of filtering and quality-of-service features are enabled.

So what’s unique about the Alcatel terabit router? Instead of embedding routing functionality into an ASIC, as these other vendors have done, Alactel is using next-generation network processors from IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM). Traditionally, network processors have been too slow to handle packet forwarding at gigabit rates even without advanced features turned on. This is why older Cisco routers that use network processors have been criticized so much. But thanks to IBM, Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), and a slew of startups working on the network processor technology, a new breed of off-the-shelf chips have recently been developed (see Network Processors Proliferate).

“If it's coming from IBM, I wouldn’t doubt it too much,” says David Newman, president of Network Test. “ASICs are fast but limited. They have only limited memory, and it's very expensive to make new ones if functional requirements change."

At the heart of any routing product is the software. While Juniper has developed its own routing software that is touted in the industry for its stability, Alcatel has built its code around an IP kernel it licensed from Phase II, a commonly used open-source routing code now owned by Nortel. Avici has also licensed code, but it’s kernel is from GateD, something that some experts say might be a problem.

“GateD is a mess,” says Newman. “It’s difficult to optimize and just not a good place to start. But I guess the real proof of any of these software implementations is whether or not they actually work in the field.”

The 7770, which is expected to be in beta tests in the next few months and available for general release in May 2001, will support line cards with interfaces ranging from OC3 to OC192, with support for OC768 planned for later releases.

As for the 7420 edge router, it offers service providers line-rate packet forwarding and carrier-class redundancy at the edge. Unlike the M5 and M10 products from Juniper, the 7420 is fully redundant (every element has a backup), says the vendor. It will be in beta tests in Q1 2001 and is expected to ship in Q2 2001.

-- Marguerite Reardon, senior editor, Light Reading, http://www.lightreading.com

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