Brightlink Gets Second Chance
Having picked up Brightlink's intellectual property on the cheap, the pair is hoping to license the technology. They've gotten nibbles related to large crossconnects and STS1 grooming switches -- the kinds of work Brightlink's BOSS 1000 would have performed. But Kerry Davis, who founded Aztech Partners as a holding company for Brightlink's technology, wants more.
Davis thinks Brightlink could have radically changed the way large switching platforms are built -- if only the startup had realized its own potential. His goal is to find a licensee that will be willing to build products based on a distributed switch fabric.
"The technology was never presented this way. The marketing and sales groups at Brightlink were not of a TDM background," Davis says.
Brightlink's run was short but eventful. The company started in 1998 as Uniant, a chip firm, then changed its business model to systems and its name to Corvia. Lawsuit threats from Corvis Corp. (Nasdaq: CORV) prompted one more name change, to Brightlink. The startup was building a crossconnect that could scale to large port counts -- a big requirement at the time -- while still shuffling traffic in STS1 increments.
Davis managed Brightlink's Sonet system architecture team and opened the company's Texas facility, but he departed amid disagreements with management's direction. As Brightlink collapsed, Davis worked a stint at Polaris Networks and later pursued his own ideas. "I had at the time talked to some VCs about doing something with a VT1.5 type of switch, which would be an adjunct to the STS grooming switch that Brightlink had," he says.
Meanwhile, Brightlink's intellectual property -- much of which hadn't yet been patented -- was still on the block, with no takers.
"Once the price got down to a reasonable range, I just pulled in a couple of partners and decided to finish the patent work," he says. (His other partners, who prefer to stay anonymous, are a fellow Brightlink alumnus and an associate experienced with Telcordia processes.) "Up until around Christmas  we were just sitting on it. Then we started getting calls."
Calls? Yes, word got out about the bankruptcy sale, and some interested parties tracked their way to Davis. The volume of calls prompted Aztech to create its Website, which got 3,700 hits in its first week, Davis says.
Beyond email sent to some prospects, Aztech hasn't publicized its efforts much. "We're just hoping to get the technology back out there," Davis says.
Quite a few telecom companies have been the subject of management buyouts (see Management Buyouts Blossom, Germany's Aifotec Is Reborn, Axsun Gets ISO 9001 Certified, and Billing Online UK Signs Up 2). Aztech's licensing approach carries less risk than trying to rebuild a whole company, but revival of any technology is tough, especially when customers have already passed on the idea. "There aren't many successful examples of licensing the intellectual property of a company that's been foreclosed on," says Susan Mason, partner with Onset Ventures.
The technology's degree of eventual success might depend on how involved Davis and his Brightlink partner get.
"It’s not outside the realm of possibility that [a technology-licensing startup] could work, if you can also capture the critical talent to accompany the intellectual property. If not, then it’s largely worthless," says Tim Danford, technologist-in-residence with Storm Ventures. Scaling up
Davis's ambitions revolve around the idea of a distributed switch fabric. Most large routers and switches use a centralized model, where the switch fabric -- the matrix that connects one port to another -- sits in a single physical place, often on one card in one box. All other cards inside the box must connect to it, and, in multichassis implementations, every other box must connect to the switching box.
This leads to a problem in scaling. As the system grows, more of these connections build up, and the architecture can't keep pace. Besides becoming physically entangled, the switch might encounter problems balancing all the traffic flows properly.
One possible answer is to split the work among the different linecards and boxes, distributing the switch fabric's workload. The result is a simpler and cheaper architecture, one that uses fewer chips to get to higher port counts. That's what the BOSS 1000 did -- by placing a switching ASIC on each linecard, it didn't need a switch card.
Router vendors Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7) and Hyperchip Inc. are using distributed fabrics but don't have huge success to show for it -- although, as Davis points out, they're targeting the IP routing market, whereas Brightlink was aiming for Sonet transport.
To Davis, the problem lies in cracking the mold of tradition. The Clos architecture, which dictates the "normal" layout of a switch fabric, has been around for 50 years. It works, and systems designers are familiar with it.
Davis thinks his best bet might be to get a chip company interested, because few equipment vendors can afford to take chances on something new. "Because money is so tight, the people who are building equipment are really short-sighted," Davis says. "If you had a company that did for switching platforms what the PMCs and AMCCs did for Sonet chips, then all these startups could come out doing I/O shelves" instead of systems -- a less expensive proposition that wouldn't force startups to compete with switches from Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA).
Another idea, which Brightlink never explored, is an alternative to the God Box. Rather than create one system that handles all traffic types (ATM, Ethernet, Sonet/SDH, etc.), it should be possible to keep separate systems but use a BOSS-like fabric to interconnect them. "You could have an ADM which shares a switch fabric with a crossconnect which shares the same switch fabric with a router," Davis says.
Whether the Brightlink technology sinks or swims this time, Davis and his partners might have found another calling in Aztech. "We're working on other things that it's too early to advertise."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading