Intel Unveils Packet Tracker

Don’t let the jargon put you off. The “OC48 version of the PCI-compatible Gigablade Optical Services Platform” may seem like quite a mouthful, but this PCI card from Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) could turn out to be quite a breakthrough in optical networking.

Here’s why: The card can track packet activity on high-speed optical links in real time and put the data in PC apps – and that’s a first, according to Nayel Shafei, president of Enkido Inc., a privately held carrier that helped develop and test the product. It paves the way for independent software developers to write server-based applications that make use of this data.

"This will do for the optical networking market what PCs did for personal computing in the eighties," says Shafei. In other words, it’s a big deal.

According to Intel, typical applications might include billing and accounting, fraud detection and security, and network design –- issues close to the hearts of many service providers.

"The idea is that the processor doesn't just monitor network performance; it can also be used in applications that optimize the overall traffic," says Tom Hausken, senior analyst, optical networks, at market research firm Strategies Unlimited.

The Gigablade is a PCI card with an optical coupler attached, designed to install in an Intel-compatible workstation or server. The coupler attaches to an optical network cable, passively siphoning off light from an optical circuit in an ATM or packet-over-Sonet network, then putting it into an electrical format that can be read by PC applications. The board includes a collection of four Intel broadband network processors and a PCI-to-optical interface. It passively tracks optical network traffic at rates to 2.5 Gbit/s.

Note: The Gigablade won't work on your average PC. The PCI interface on the Gigablade is a new one designed for servers that operates in 64-bit, 66-MHz processing mode, enabling it to support data transmission at rates to just over 4 Gbit/s. Older versions of PCI support 33-bit, 33-MHz interactions -- which won't handle high-speed data. But, according to Intel, the higher-end PCI bus is the wave of the future.

Intel acquired the technology for the Gigablade through its purchase of Softcom Microsystems Inc. last July.

One vendor who's using the new board says it's the only one of its kind he could find. Richard Kagan, VP of marketing at Narus Inc., says the card provides an optical interface for Narus's analyzer box, which gathers and reduces data on high-speed packet networks, then feeds this data to billing systems. "This is the only product that lets us look passively into optical networks in real time," he says.

Intel's announcement is significant, some analysts say, because packing the lasers, modulators, drivers, and firmware needed for broadband service applications onto a single ready-made PC card cuts development time and cost for vendors seeking to create new products in these areas.

"Once you give people something like this, they may not have thought of it before, but they go 'Wow, think of what can I do with it!' The strategy's very sound," says Hausken.

There are drawbacks: As noted, the PCI bus supported by the Gigablade won't work with many existing servers. And some sources question whether passive monitoring from a PCI card is really the best approach to keeping tabs on optical traffic. "There are arguments about where the locus of processing for optical applications should be," says Tom Valovic, an analyst with International Data Corp.. He says some argue that the router or edge device is better equipped than a desktop computer to handle bulky, transaction-oriented applications like billing.

Enkido's Shafei says the proof is in the pudding: The card is already in use. "Our customers are using this in service applications now," he says. "I just can't tell you who they are or what they're doing."

Other vendors, most notably Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), make similar processor subsystems. But, so far, Lucent hasn't been marketing its product for PCI applications.

According to Hausken, the ultimate test of Intel's subsystem can only come with time. "This is a new kind of product that folk haven't used yet. My feeling is that we can expect to see a lot more activity from other vendors in the network processor market. Then we can get down to evaluating individual architectures."

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

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