Lucent Ignites ATM

NEW YORK—While much of the networking industry is focusing on adding IP to metropolitan optical networks, Ignitus Communications LLC (http://www.ignitus.com) is taking a different tack: They’re rolling out an ATM product.

Funding for Ignitus comes exclusively from Lucent Technologies Inc. (http://www.lucent.com), which will sell and support the product.

Ignitus says the 3500 Integrated Access Switch will allow carriers to build high-speed, converged networks for very little investment. “We’re bringing the cost of deploying new metro services down to $200 per T1 port. No-one else comes close,” says David Marble, vice president of marketing at Ignitus.

However, other ATM-based solutions that target the metro market are not selling well, and the device faces stiff competition from a host of startups working on IP-centric solutions.

The Ignitus product is designed for installation in metropolitan area networks, where it enables carriers to offer voice, video, and data services over a common optical backbone. Despite its roots in asynchronous transfer mode, Ignitus says there’s nothing retro about the 3500. The device comprises a hybrid ATM switch and Sonet crossconnect. Combining these two technologies on one platform provides efficient data transport and guaranteed latencies for voice and video traffic, simultaneously. Essentially, the device allows Sonet networks to carry data more efficiently by creating a virtual path on the Sonet backbone for ATM traffic.

That eliminates one of the biggest problems associated with traditional Sonet solutions. They were originally designed to support circuit-switched voice traffic, and are inherently inefficient at handling data—forcing service providers to waste valuable bandwidth by multiplexing data traffic onto the rigid 1.5-Mbit/s or 45-Mbit/s channels dictated by the Sonet TDM (time-division multiplexing) architecture.

Ignitus sounds like it’s on to something, but it is far from being the first vendor to try to mix Sonet and ATM in the same device, and the others have met with a mixed reception. ADC Telecommunications Inc. (http://www.adc.com), Atmosphere Networks Inc. (http://www.atmospherenet.com), Ciena Corp. (http://www.ciena.com), Fujitsu Corp. (http://www.fujitsu.com), and Nortel Networks Inc. (http://www.nortelnetworks.com) all make so-called ATM VP (virtual private) ring products, geared to build converged networks by muxing data onto Sonet circuits using ATM. To date, those products haven’t sold well, for a few reasons. One is that they are expensive, critics say. The other is that they are limited to a ring topology—they can’t support mesh networks. Ignitus says its device uses two techniques to improve ATM VP ring technology and overcome those deficiencies.

First: Ignitus is building the product using commercially available ATM and Sonet merchant silicon, which keeps the cost of the product down. In maximum configuration the 3500 costs as little as $200 per T1 port. ATM VP ring products typically cost at least two or three times as much. The device can be configured with up to 72 DS3 ports or up to 336 T1 ports. (Complete spec sheets are at http://www.ignitus.com/productsshell.html)

Second: The 3500 features a full ATM switch with an internal capacity of 5 Gbit/s. Most other ATM VP rings use only a subset of the ATM feature set, called service access multiplexing (SAM). “By implementing a true switch, and PNNI [Private Network-to-Network Interface], we can support any topology the customer likes,” says Marble.

Ignitus will also face stiff competition from the eleven companies working on Sonet MSPPs, or multi-service provisioning platforms (see: (Sonet Goes POP). Those products typically implement ATM and IP, and their vendors claim that they are cheaper and much easier to use than ATM-only solutions like the one from Ignitus. One Swedish carrier is using one of these platforms to roll out Ethernet to the home at a mere $150 a port.

Ignitus says there is room for both IP and ATM Sonet hybrids in the metro market. “They are both winners. ATM is more applicable for RBOCs and bigger carriers that already have an ATM core and want to extend it further out into the network,” says Marble. “IP might be a fit for smaller startups with no infrastructure.”

Some carriers say it’s not a question of one or the other—they want both. “You have to have IP routing, and you clearly need VP ATM rings,” says Ben Peak, senior fellow at GST Telecommunications, Inc. (http://www.gst.net), an integrated communications provider that is trialing Sonet MSPP products.

In the short term, Ignitus’s biggest competition is likely to be the Sonet MSPP platform that was acquired by Cisco Systems Inc. (http://www.cisco.com) when it bought Cerent last year. While Cisco is planning to add IP routing to the Sonet platform, its first move will be to upgrade it with ATM capabilities in the first half of this year, at which point it will go head to head with Ignitus for the same customers.

The 3500 will be in beta trials in March and available for general deployment in the second quarter, 2000, the company says. In addition to ATM and Sonet the 3500 also supports passive optical network (PON) interfaces, which allow carriers to deliver cheap fiber connections to customer premises over the local loop. And it comes with DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing), which boosts network capacity.

Despite its potential, the rollout of the Ignitus 3500 last week (January 25th) was not all it could have been. The storms in Washington DC meant that that the traffic at the Comnet trade show was as light as the snow was heavy—leaving the Ignitus staff little to do but huddle like penguins in its huge booth.

Still, despite the slow start, the Ignitus team’s future may be less uncertain than some other startups. Not only is the company funded by Lucent, but it also has been set up as an LLC (Limited Liability Company), rather than an incorporated company (Inc.) or a corporation (Corp.). That could indicate that Ignitus is looking to be acquired by Lucent, since the tax benefits that come with LLC status make it much easier for LLC companies to be bought, and much harder for them to go public. Of course, it's also the case that there is no reason why Ignitus could not change its status later, if it wanted to.

In fact, pressure for Lucent to buy the company sooner rather than later is mounting. Industry juggernauts like Fujitsu and Nortel already are shipping their ATM VP ring products for the metro market. Others, like Cisco and Redback Networks Inc. (http://www.redback.com), have acquired metro Sonet MSPP ring capabilities. Lucent has yet to get in the game.

—Stephen Saunders, US editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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