Optical/IP Networks

Hammerhead Strikes at the Edge

On the heels of Nortel Networks Ltd.'s (NYSE/Toronto: NT) Neptune router, startup Hammerhead Systems Inc. is swimming into multiservice edge waters today with its Sharktooth box, formally dubbed the HSX 6000.

Nautical imagery aside, Hammerhead's timing is inauspicious, arriving later than even slowpoke Nortel (see Neptune Arrives). And Hammerhead's debut could coincide with the week its hometown San Jose Sharks get eliminated from hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs.

Then again, an optimist would point out the Sharks could earn their first trip to the finals this week and that Hammerhead is actually shipping, unlike Nortel. Moreover, the startup claims it's bringing something novel to the multiservice edge market: a single box meant to coexist between Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) worlds.

"They seem to be bringing some neat technology and innovation into the market. That alone doesn't guarantee success, of course," says Kevin Mitchell, an analyst with Infonetics Research Inc.

Hammerhead is a post-bubble startup, having been founded in January 2002 by veterans who were at StrataCom and Ascend Communications during those companies' acquisitions by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU). Hammerhead has raised $43 million in two funding rounds (see Hammerhead Nails $25M).

Its HSX multiservice edge router targets the migration of traffic from ATM and Frame Relay networks to a converged IP/MPLS core. Similar new products have emerged -- either organically or through acquisition -- from Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), Laurel Networks Inc., Nortel, and Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA). (See Alcatel Goes Mid-Range, Laurel Steps Up on the Edge, and Tellabs Sharpens Its Edge.)

At a quarter-rack, the HSX is more compact than competitors, including the 1/3-rack Nortel MPE 9000. The HSX handles interface speeds from T1 (1.5 Mbit/s) up to OC192 (10 Gbit/s) and can be configured for a switching capacity of 30 Gbit/s to 120 Gbit/s -- on a par with the MPE 9000's 40 Gbit/s to 80 Gbit/s, and just less than the 160 Gbit/s or more for competitors like Juniper's M320.

Cisco is using established routers for this market, but many competitors believe the requirements are different enough to justify a new box for the multiservice edge. The results "might constitute a new router-switch category," Mitchell says. "There hasn't been a new category in many years. It's been consolidation of categories."

Why a new box? Because the MPLS migration won't happen overnight. Hammerhead and others believe the job calls for a system that can shunt traffic over an ATM core (the old network) or an MPLS core (the new, IP-centric network). Such a system keeps customers' ATM and Frame Relay services intact, while service providers save operational costs by diverting the traffic to the MPLS network. The multiservice edge router acts as the "slip differential" for the transition, says Houman Modarres, Hammerhead director of product management.

Unlike Cisco, Juniper, and Nortel, which aim to do this with Layer 3 boxes, Hammerhead believes a Layer 2 focus is required to preserve service-level agreements, because the question of operation, administration, and maintenance (OAM) remains unsettled for MPLS (see MPLS Gets the Management Blues). "The question is: Can you make it look connection-oriented enough to bill for it?" Modarres asks.

The trick, he says, was to pack both ATM and MPLS control planes into the HSX. Other boxes -- such as Alcatel's 7670 Routing Switch Platform -- do this, but the HSX allows incoming Layer 2 traffic to be pointed toward the ATM or MPLS network arbitrarily.

"Traffic going over ATM and MPLS networks at the same time: That's an interesting capability that I've not seen elsewhere," Mitchell says. "Usually there's service interworking between ATM and MPLS, or it's ships-in-the-night, where they never run into each other."

By contrast, Alcatel employs rather a yin/yang strategy. Its 7670 sits inside ATM or other Layer 2 networks, transporting MPLS traffic. The 7750 Service Router, developed by the acquired TiMetra Networks, does the opposite: It sits on IP/MPLS networks to carry Layer 2 traffic. Why not combine them? "Our experience has been that the tradeoffs are too great," says Jim Guillet, assistant vice president of product marketing for Alcatel's IP division.

All for One

Inside, the HSX makes interesting use of network processors, which Hammerhead purchases from an undisclosed vendor.

The chips allowed Hammerhead to develop one Universal Services Module (USM) for all services available on the HSX. The strategy recalls "any service, any port" claims from Cisco and Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7), and Mitchell notes that Nortel's MPE 9000 uses similarly universal cards. (See Avici, Riverstone Pick Processors.)

The HSX's midplane design puts the USMs on the front and the physical-interface modules on the back of the chassis.

Hammerhead then uses a bandwidth pooling scheme allowing slow-interface traffic from multiple linecards to be fed into one USM. This lets the HSX use more of its theoretical capacity by using USM slots more efficiently. Typical architectures pair services and interface cards in a 1:1 ratio, meaning slots can fill up if lots of slow-speed interfaces are connected, Modarres says.

The HSX 6000 has completed two carrier trials, one with an unnamed Tier 1 RBOC, and Modarres says the company is shipping equipment for three more. That's a nice start, but Hammerhead officials acknowledge a startup has it tough. Modarres says the company is pursuing "a variety of channel partnerships."

"They're not going to survive by themselves. They need channels," notes Infonetics' Mitchell. "Even stars of the industry like Juniper are where they are because of channels."

For future development, the HSX's network processors give it an interesting twist. Despite being a Layer 2 box, the HSX is aware of what's going on at Layer 3, and can perform packet inspection at Layer 7. This opens up some possible future applications involving deep packet analysis. Modarres, giving no details, calls such applications "highly speculative" but notes they're part of the HSX's next set of trials.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

For more information about the multiservice edge, see these Light Reading reports: Recent Light Reading Webinars related to this story:

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