Optical/IP Networks

God is Dead

I’ve said this before, but the optical networking industry is a funny old nobodaddy that moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes it just plain defies logic.

Take the “God box” — the name given to a networking device that supports multiple functions. (The opposite of a God box is a point product: a specialized box that does one thing only. A can-opener is a point product. A Swiss army knife is not, which is undoubtedly why they guard the Vatican.)

The God squad currently includes companies like Alidian Networks Inc., Astral Point Communications Inc., Geyser Networks Inc., and Mayan Networks Inc.. They’re all out there trying to hawk busy little boxes supporting DWDM, Sonet, voice, IP, service provisioning, net management and — puff, puff, gasp! — a bunch of other stuff (see Astral Point Gets In A Mesh and Geyser Emits First Product).

The idea behind God boxes is certainly a logical one: By building disparate functions that would usually be supported using different devices into one chassis, service providers should save money on capex, and service, and support. Logical? Oh indeed. But in practice things aren’t turning out too well for the God-box vendors. They haven’t been bought. They can’t go public in the current financial climate. And they’re having problems landing customers and further investment (see Mayan Ruins?).

What’s gone wrong for them? One problem is that networking isn’t really a one-size-fits-all science. By dividing their resources in order to target multiple technology goals, ye God-box vendors run the risk of ending up with something neither fish nor fowl: A device that does many things — and none of them especially well — is an abomination unto the market.

Back when the God-box crew was formulating plans, this didn’t matter too much. That’s because the kinds of customers they were targeting — startup CLECs and BLECs — don’t hold to the same high standards of reliability and performance as the established RBOCs, ILECs, and IXCs. The idea was that the nouveau niche providers would happily plunk down the money for these cheap’n’cheerful devices.

Unfortunately, as went the Nasdaq, so went these customer prospects. Turns out their arms were too short to box with God. Service providers like Digital Broadband, Fiber Street, GST Telecommunications Inc., and ICG Communications Inc. (Nasdaq/Neuer Markt: ICGX) have all filed for bankruptcy. Others are looking decidedly peaky.

Some vendors have managed to escape the backlash. Cyras Systems Inc. is an interesting case in point. When it was shopping itself around for attention last year, its marketing department put it about that it was developing a multifunction Sonet ADM with built-in IP capabilities. It wasn’t (not even a little bit). The product is actually a straightforward Sonet device — albeit one that packed Schwarzenegger levels of performance into a teeny-weeny frame.

The reason Cyras put out that it had “IP inside” was to position itself against Siara — its nearest competitor — which really was developing an IP/Sonet hybrid. (Incidentally, Redback Networks Inc.’s (Nasdaq: RBAK) fortunes have stumbled since it acquired the Siara device. The curse of the God box, perhaps?) Cyras won the marketing battle, at the same time as its founders were giving the real (pure Sonet) pitch to Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN) — which bought the startup for $2.3 billion. Ciena, being a public company, promptly had to clean up Cyras’s marketing materials and admit that the Cyras device did not support IP in any way, shape, or form.

The irony, of course, is that if Cyras had really been working on a God box, it wouldn’t have been bought and would now be sharing the waiting room with the casualties listed above.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) is another company that’s flirted with — and sensibly ditched — the God-box conceit. At the recent launch of its tiny Sonet ADM product — the ONS 15327 — on January 31, Sanjay Pol, the director of product marketing for the device, surprised Light Reading by announcing (et voila!) that the device supported IP as well as Sonet and Ethernet via an “onboard protocol stack.” (See Cisco Hatches Cerent 'Mini Me'.)

Apparently, Cisco was as surprised by this revelation as we were — IP isn’t listed on the device’s spec sheets — and the IP capabilities subsequently disappeared (poof!) from the product pitch as quickly as they had arrived.

That’s perhaps to be expected, given that Carl Russo, Cisco’s group vice president of optical networking, and the mastermind behind the company’s push into optical networking, is a card-carrying atheist when it comes to God boxes. His argument (one I happen to agree with) is history has shown that vendors who take the “do one thing and do it well” approach usually win out in the end. Their products are better equipped to meet the high standards of the RBOCs, ILECs, and IXCs — the ones with the big money. These carriers don’t want their networking devices to juggle five balls — they just want them to catch one.

It’s this attitude that furnishes the rationale behind Cisco’s recently launched ONS 15200 series of bog-simple metro DWDM boxes, based on technology Cisco acquired last year from Qeyton Systems (see Cisco Marches Deeper Into the Metro). Indeed, it’s the same attitude that led to the astonishing success of the ONS 15454, the small, straight-ahead, Sonet-based metro networking switch acquired from Cerent Corp. (Cisco has shipped more than 25,000 15454 chassis.)

In other words, Cisco’s overall strategy for deploying optical networks is on the money. Some of its execution isn’t perfect, of course. It’s obvious to everyone — except, perhaps, Cisco employees and some of the really stoopid CSCO shareholders — that the optical switch it acquired when it bought Monterey will never (never!) see the light of day. But if it continues with its current approach of building or buying top-quality point products it could do well.

In fact, long-term, Cisco has a real shot at doing better than its current archrival in the optical world, Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT). That’s because it has expertise in IP — a technology it can use to cobble together all of these disparate devices into a single service-provisioning/creation/management/billing scheme. Nortel, on the other hand, has little to no expertise in IP.

As for the God boxes: When it comes to optical networking, God is dead.

— Stephen Saunders, Founding Editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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