Polaris Builds a God Box

Startup Polaris Networks came out of stealth mode today to tell the world that it's developing a switch to replace a whole bunch of different pieces of equipment in a carrier's central office or point of presence (see Polaris Announces Metro Switch).

Yes. Amazing though it may seem, Polaris is developing a "God box," a concept that's become deeply unfashionable, not to mention unsuccessful, in the past year or so (see God is Dead). A notable example of this is Tachion Networks, whose "Collapsed Central Office" idea appears to have gone sour (see Crunch Time at Tachion).

Polaris certainly isn't trying to be another Tachion (although a couple of its senior managers hail from there). It's making a box that combines the functions of a different set of equipment -- an optical switch and a core router and an ATM switch and a bunch of add/drop multiplexers and DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing) gear, to be precise.

But the same arguments against God boxes still apply.

In particular, God boxes are more appropriate for startup carriers that don't already have equipment that might be duplicated by them -- and of course, the equipment market for startup carriers is in the doldrums right now.

Moreover, there's a danger that equipment that aims to do a lot of things, like Polaris's switch, might do none of them particularly well.

Still, Polaris claims it's got some unique technology that'll help its switch become an exception to the rule. Specifically, its switch is "programmable" -- which enables Polaris to simplify carrier networks and use bandwidth more efficiently, without risking quality problems.

There are plenty of reasons for taking Polaris's claims seriously.

For a kickoff, Ray Kao, Polaris's CEO and CTO, was the chief architect of Stratacom’s switch, which gave Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) its entrée into the service provider market. Vu Nguyen, Polaris's president and VP of engineering, also worked at Stratacom and led the development of Cisco's MGX8850 multiservice switch.

Polaris's financial backers also have good pedigrees. Its $22 million first round came from Redpoint Ventures, Storm Ventures (where Dick Moley, Stratacom’s old CEO, hangs out), and Venrock Associates.

Wu-Fu Chen is also a board member and investor in Polaris, even though he pooh-poohed God boxes in an interview with Light Reading last year.

So, what's got the old Stratacom gang and Wu-Fu Chen so excited? Let's dig into some details:

Polaris’s switch acts as a node on an optical backbone, setting up and tearing down wavelengths to other nodes in response to GMPLS (generalized multiprotocol label switching) signaling. (Sighing over folk pinning so many hopes on GMPLS is optional here.)

Initially, the switch will have an electrical switching fabric, but the plan is to add an all-optical core by the second quarter of 2002, according to Sab Gosal, Polaris's director of product marketing.

In some respects, this aspect of Polaris’s switch is like the CoreDirector from Ciena Corp. (Nasdaq: CIEN), except that the CoreDirector only handles circuits -- and only in STS1 (51.84 Mbit/s) increments. Polaris is aiming to handle VT1.5 (1.7 Mbit/s) increments.

That's just for starters. Polaris’s switch also aims to pack packets and cells, as well as circuits, into wavelengths in their native formats.

The key word here is native. Switches that already handle this combination of traffic don’t do this, according to Gosal. Some of them handle circuits exclusively and shunt packets and cells onto these circuits, which wastes bandwidth. Others do the opposite, handling packets or cells exclusively and synchronizing them to emulate circuits -- something that leads to jitter (read "quality problems") on high-speed optical backbones, according to Gosal.

Polaris says it won't do either of these things. Its switch will handle cells as cells, packets as packets, and circuits as circuits, full stop. Its ability to do this comes from developing its “programmable switch” that can be configured to handle different types of traffic simultaneously in their native formats.

This programmable switch comprises custom ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) loaded with microcode. The microcode was developed by Polaris and represents the startup's key intellectual property, according to Gosal.

Development of the ASICs has been outsourced to an unidentified supplier. The chances are that it’s ZettaCom Inc., which happens to have a couple of the same investors as Polaris -- Venrock and Wu-Fu Chen (see Zettacom Set to Score $47.5M).

One of the upshots of this is that Polaris only needs one line card for its switch because the card's software can be reconfigured to handle ATM, IP, TDM, gigabit Ethernet, or whatever. Normally, each traffic type would need a different card, something that ends up creating inventory problems for carriers. In fact, the whole switch only comprises four elements: the chassis, a controller card, a reconfigurable line card, and a switching card.

Gosal says that Polaris has bought in software stacks to support different protocols, which goes some way to explaining how it’s managed to achieve so much in such a short time. It was launched only a year ago, in June 2000, and expects to start beta trials in the fourth quarter of this year. It has 90 on staff at present.

It’s worth pointing out that off-the-shelf software stacks rarely can match the performance of code that’s been designed and refined with specific hardware in mind -- sometimes by armies of software engineers at a big equipment manufacturer.

Polaris says the programmability of its switch enables it to replace a whole room full of equipment in a carrier’s POP, including add/drop multiplexers, core routers, and ATM switches, in addition to optical switches and DWDM multiplexing equipment.

Today's Typical Central Office/Point of Presence After Installing Polaris's OMX So, who does Polaris compete with? In some respects, it competes with the likes of Équipe Communications Corp., Tenor Networks Inc., and Vivace Networks, which have switches that aim to funnel different types of traffic on and off optical backbones. However, these boxes don’t actually form part of the optical backbone itself, in the way the Polaris switch does.

Mind you, that could be a mixed blessing for Polaris. A lot of incumbent operators have separate divisions handling transport and services. Those folk simply won’t buy a switch that spans this divide because it creates too many political problems related to questions such as who will manage and maintain such equipment.

— Peter Heywood, Founding Editor, Light Reading
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Lafite 12/4/2012 | 10:48:58 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box I am curious if anyone has any opinions on a couple of companies, not related to Polaris or Ocular...The first is White Rock Networks,
the second is Turin Networks.

Anyone have any thoughts/ideas on these two?

_____ 12/4/2012 | 8:11:21 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box Just exactly which part of the telecom meltdown do they NOT understand?

Then again, the old Tachion thread is dead so looks like we'll have something new to write about. Maybe Polaris will sell a couple more boxes than Tachion did...
lightreader 12/4/2012 | 8:11:19 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box isn't this what ocular already has?..a unified
switching fabric?
guru 12/4/2012 | 8:11:13 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box it is both a dessert topping and a floor wax... but can it make julienne potatoes???

i plan to buy one with the coffee maker option.

green 12/4/2012 | 8:11:11 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box a few weeks after the 1989 crash one venture capitalist in the silicon valley funded a networking company that later became the leader in networking. that company was cisco. during the period the NASDAQ was hovering between 500 and 1500. just because there is a downturn in telecom industry right now it doesn't mean we have stop innovating...
Peter Heywood 12/4/2012 | 8:10:59 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box Green, I'm not sure how to take your comment.

I don't see much sign of innovation getting stifled. The good, well thought out ideas are still getting funded. The bad ones aren't, and that's probably a good thing in the long run.

Our job at Light Reading is to help folk recognize the difference.
dpgreen 12/4/2012 | 8:10:57 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box My opinion on g*d boxes from 20+ years of building multi-function boxes:

The value they have can be tremendous in terms of lower capital cost, sparing costs, training, etc. by lowering the number of unique boxes in a network. They can also introduce new revenue opportunities. Customers not only value this, they demand it.

However, most g*d boxes of them suffer from the fact that their ONLY value is in being multi function, i.e. they don't have any overwhelming business case for one specific application. In addition,they often go too far in integrating function so vast that no one group can take advantage of them.

For large carriers, the buying decision for each technology is most often made by different groups with different budgets, often using different management systems (TL-1 versus SNMP, etc.). Trying to sell each group on the fact that they should buy mediocre function or change management systems for their specific area just because the box can also be used other places is VERY hard.

This problem is acute in startups. Companies get funded on a vision, but customers don't spend money on visions, they buy products for specific applcations. No company (startup or otherwise) delivers everything on their powerpoint slides in the first release. If the only value in the product is the all-singing and all-dancing product that comes in the 4th or 5th generation somewhere down the road, the company will run out of money well before they have anything worth buying. Selling product based on first/second release function is what gives you the time to develop the rest of your product and an embedded base to sell new function into.

Can it ever work? Absolutely. There are plenty of examples of successful integration of functions and networks (for example, ATM and Frame Relay, terminal servers and access routing). However, there has to be a clear, overwhelming value to one particular group for a specific application. The multi-function box vendor has to pick an initial application and make sure that their product has a business case for that application, stand-alone.

Also, the vendor has to know who the customer is and what parts of the network are likely to converge in the near term (ask customers, not consultants). The vendor has to be careful that the amount of functional integration doesn't span beyond the organizational, political, and cultural boundaries within the target customer base.

The bottom line is to optimize the practical value to the customer in real-world conditions, not the theoretical value.

sdsmith 12/4/2012 | 8:10:56 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box Hmm, I think you are right on that point. Ocular is shipping product that allows for all of the same functions as described in the Article. Only time will tell what happens with yet Another "God Box"
LightYears 12/4/2012 | 8:10:55 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box Why did LR include these marketing slides from Polaris in this article (which happens to be much more lengthy than most of the News Analysis articles). Its very apparent the slides came from Polaris' marketing department.
dpgreen 12/4/2012 | 8:10:47 PM
re: Polaris Builds a God Box sdsmith,

First of all, anybody should be skeptical about the technology behind a single switch architecture that doesn't compromise one of the functions. Most of them turn out to be circuit emulation or encapsulations that come nowhere close to meeting SONET standards for jitter and delay. It is a very difficult thing to combine the rigid timing characteristics of a time slot interchange architecture with the statistical multiplexing efficiencies of shared memory switches. (If you are interested, Ocular is presenting a technical paper on this at NFOEC).

What I stated in my last post, however, is that a great architecture is not enough. In my experience with one large company and 4 startups, I have yet to receive a purchase order for an architecture or collect revenue for a vision.

Our products, however, are finding a very significant first application in cross connect replacement combined with ethernet transport. However, there is no forgiveness for having inadequate cross connect function just because you do data too, or vice versa. You can't compete by showing up to a gunfight with a swiss army knife, no matter how many tools it has.

Our bottom line: VT1.5 grooming function comparable with a Titan for less than 1/3 the cost per VT, fitting in 1/3 of a rack versus multiple bays, in a system that won't be stranded as the need for TDM diminishes. The service providers don't have to think too hard on that equation. That alone justifies the product without even looking at the multi-service capability.

Now, throw in the capability to deliver Ethernet services using their existing infrastructure and provisioning systems and they start salivating. Throw in the simplicity of using a single switch and you really raise the bar on competition.

The point is: vision gets you in the door, but proving in for the first applications is what gives you the footprint to deliver on the vision and revenue to execute.

One admission: I have seen numerous companies who had vision/architecture/technology but no product applications who were considered "successful" because they were bought by larger. However, as of the last 6 months the large companies have become believers in the value of customers and revenue.
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