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Équipe Hints at Software Edge

Light Reading
News Analysis
Light Reading
6/16/2000

It's rare to announce a software architecture for a hardware product that hasn't shipped or even been described in much detail. But that's just what Équipe Communications Corp. http://www.equipecom.com plans to do on Monday.

In an exclusive interview with Light Reading, the vendor described Évail, the software behind its optical edge switch, which is planned for release this fall. And Équipe's president and CEO, Dennis Rainville, explained the strategy.

"High availability and scalability are a must in this market, and they depend on software," he says. Without an architecture that supports high fault tolerance from the ground up, he says, no optical vendor can hope to win accounts among ILECs, IXCs, and RBOCs -- the market Équipe is pursuing.

To support fault tolerance and availability, Évail's service applications will run in multiple disparate memory locations and on multiple processors distributed throughout the switch.

The proof of Équipe's claims will be in the live performance of Évail in real-world trials -- and that's not set to happen until fall. But as a marketing play, the Évail announcement is giving some analysts a better feel for what Équipe is after.

"I believe they have developed a successful strategy that addresses the shortcomings of the currently deployed crop of core data switches, namely their software," says Scott Clavenna, principal analyst at Pioneer Consulting LLC http://www.pioneerconsulting.com. Rearchitecting the way carrier networks run can only be done by a startup, he notes, and that appears to be Équipe's mission.

According to Tom Nolle, president of consultancy CIMI Corp. http://www.cimicorp.com, Équipe seems bent on creating not just a connectivity platform but one geared to high-end service provisioning. This would be a boon to carriers seeking to streamline provisioning at the optical edge. "Separate control and data planes, mechanisms to keep services up during failures, fault recovery... it all indicates [a platform for provisioning]," he says.

The Évail architecture has several key features that Équipe says set it apart from the software used in other broadband switches. First off, applications are run separately in virtual portions of protected memory, so that malfunctions in one application won't affect others. Likewise, upgrades to one application can be performed without throwing other apps off.

In contrast, Équipe says, many high-end routers and switches designed in the past decade use a single operating system kernel to run all apps. If one app crashes (for instance, if a Sonet driver fails to work properly), it affects all the device's drivers and applications. It's a situation that has led to numerous high-profile network failures, as well as seat-of-the-pants troubleshooting -- in which the best way to fix a system is to reboot it. "That's totally unacceptable," says Joe Whitehouse, Équipe director of product management.

Évail also includes distinct software to handle data and traffic control, according to Équipe. "That's not the case in some switches," says Whitehouse. "Often, one processor has to do everything, and that affects performance and reliability."

Despite the emphasis on software, the Évail announcement reveals details of the vendor's hardware design plans too. Évail has distinct software applications, for example, that handle data and traffic-control functions for the switch. These apps are set to run in separate processors located on the switch's line cards (those cards that provide the direct links to routers and other central office equipment). Separate processors also are dedicated to monitoring hardware and software functions on neighboring cards in the switch chassis.

In February, Équipe emerged from stealth mode by declaring it is developing an optical switch designed to groom traffic from central office routers, switches, and crossconnects onto core switches (see Équipe Scores Another $51 Million ). The switch will compete with other high-end edge-to-core switches from the likes of Lucent Technologies Inc., http://www.lucent.com, Nortel Networks Inc. http://www.nortel.com, and Tenor Networks Inc. http://www.tenornetworks.com.

But Équipe's kept mum on the specifics, saying only that it will support a range of protocols, including IP, ATM, Sonet, and MPLS (multi-protocol label switching), which Rainville says many carriers will use to migrate traffic from all-ATM to pure optical IP networks.

-- by Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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