Optical/IP Networks

Nortel's Neptune Surfaces

Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) is readying its entry into the increasingly contentious multiservice edge space with "Neptune," an ambitious Layer 3 box that represents a change from the tried-and-true Passport and Shasta systems.

Technically unannounced, Neptune has been mentioned in public multiple times, including once by Greg Mumford while Light Reading was within earshot (see Nortel's Soft Sell).

To help maintain the shroud of secrecy, Nortel-style, the company plastered Neptune's product details all over a white paper featured on this site. A proper multiservice edge router, the paper says, combines four types of system: an IP router for the edge; an Ethernet switch; a multiservice switch with ATM and Frame Relay support; and an IP services switch, of the type built by CoSine Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: COSN), Network Equipment Technologies Inc. (net.com) (NYSE: NWK), and others. Features would include support for Layer 2 and Layer 3 VPNs and for broadband remote aggregation services.

(The Nortel white paper, entitled "Convergence at the Network Edge: Five Prerequisites of the New Multiservice Edge Platform" is posted on Light Reading's White Paper library. Click here to download it.)

It's clear Neptune stands apart from Passport and Shasta by being built specifically for Layer 3, says analyst Kevin Mitchell of Infonetics Research Inc. "It really appears Neptune is going to be a router-based product, as opposed to a Frame/ATM switch."

The Neptune profile is driven by requests for proposals (RFPs) from carriers that want to mash Layer 2 and Layer 3 functions into one box. This element would pack disparate traffic types for transport across a converged IP/MPLS core -- a network model that every incumbent equipment vendor is now adopting (see Packets Key to Capex Comeback and HR Sets Course to Convergence).

The call for this multiservice edge router has prompted bold moves from several players. Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) and Tellabs Inc. (Nasdaq: TLAB; Frankfurt: BTLA) acquired TiMetra Networks and Vivace Networks, respectively, to get an instant entrée to the sector. And Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) recently introduced its M320 router specifically for this space. (See Alcatel & TiMetra Seal the Deal, Tellabs Snags Vivace for $135M, and Juniper Hatches the M320.)

Startups Laurel Networks Inc. and Hammerhead Systems Inc. compete here as well, although the latter appears to be concentrating only on Layer 2. Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) could be an edge router player through its partnership with Juniper. And, of course, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) looms over all with its 7600 series of edge routers, which have added IP services via new linecards.

Nortel originally saw Shasta as the base for its multiservice edge offering, but those efforts have stalled, leaving Nortel out of the race so far. "This has been going on since two Supercomms ago. That says it's more than an integration problem," says Frank Dzubeck, president of consulting firm Communications Network Architects Inc.

Dzubeck points to Nortel's ongoing financial crises and scandals, which came to a head yesterday with the firing of CEO Frank Dunn (see Nortel Fires CEO).

So, why can't Nortel use the Passport as its multiservice edge box? The product line has added IP and MPLS support, but Passport was born as a Layer 2 box, and analysts say this job calls for IP to be more than an add-on. Older networks based on Passport "need to evolve to a more Layer 3-centric position," says Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. "It doesn't make sense to use a Frame/ATM-centric product for your edge."

How about glomming Shasta and Passport together to form Neptune? It hits all the right buzzwords, but analysts think only a new architecture can fit the bill. Mitchell points to Juniper: The company arguably has a "multiservice edge" box in the ERX product line, but it still went out of its way to create the new M320.

It appears, then, that Nortel had to build Neptune from scratch. That's not a bad thing. Analysts point out that Passport and Shasta, while still generating revenues, are looking like aging rockers in a hip-hop world.

Shasta, in particular, lacks 2.5-Gbit/s slot densities at a time when Laurel and others are sporting 10-Gbit/s cards. And Passport, with its ATM roots, could use "sort of a midlife kicker," Nolle says. Something like Neptune could provide the next step for the platform.

Neptune's exact specifications have been a Great Dark Spot to the world, but a glance at the competition shows Nortel's likely path.

Most competitors have aimed for aggregate capacity in the 160-Gbit/s range. Even Alcatel, which started with a 400-Gbit/s box acquired from TiMetra, has introduced a scaled-down version to get into that range (see Alcatel Goes Mid-Range).

In terms of density, analyst think Neptune should support 10-Gbit/s slots. That would keep up with the competition and keep the box's overall size down, especially if Nortel sticks to that 160-Gbit/s capacity.

One open question is whether Neptune will include broadband remote aggregation services. Some multiservice edge vendors aren't bothering, but others such as Laurel see it as a necessity (see Laurel Steps Up on the Edge).

Nortel's technical literature does point out the necessity of such services, but there's no guarantee of same in Neptune. "Nortel made a mistake when they pulled out of the DSL space, and it may be too late to reintroduce themselves," Nolle says. The problem is that carriers such as Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are installing up to 2 million DSL lines per year. "With that kind of buildout, they're not going to change horses."

Sources aren't clear on when Neptune will be released, although competitors are betting the announcement will come at Supercomm in June. Despite the competition's headstart, Neptune won't be too late, Dzubeck says. RFPs from the big carriers point to multiservice edge buildouts happening in 2005 or later, and the contracts are still up for grabs.

"They [Nortel] have a credibility problem, that's for sure, but remember: You don't get selected in the carrier world just because you're a nice guy. You get accepted by being in trials in carrier labs," Dzubeck says.

Moreover, Nortel's roots really could help. "They bring a wealth of ATM and Frame working expertise, and a knowledge of how ATM networks work," Mitchell says.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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