Rotten at the Core?

BURLINGAME, Calif. -- As massive restructurings hit the service provider world, there is a rising fear that core router upgrades could be put off indefinitely, according to discussions here last week at an NGN Ventures panel on core routing startups.

Startups are particularly worried that once bankrupt carriers have written off lost networking assets and improved their balance sheets, lower bandwidth prices will force the carriers to "sweat out" their existing networks and put off upgrades until their equipment can no longer handle the traffic load (see Report: Core Router Market Falls 22%).

David House, chairman, president, and CEO of Allegro Networks Inc. acknowledged that declining carrier asset values are not helping matters. But even if carriers are now spending less because of this, "they are still spending billions," to handle more data in their networks, he said, "and they'll keep spending where the growth is."

Startups found themselves on the defensive here, wrestling with questions from the audience that reflected a swell of doubt about the near future of the core-routing business.

One skeptical attendee tried to put the panelists on their heels, asking: If carriers can't make money off data services now, why would they want to buy your gear and scale their networks?

"Carriers have always invested up front in a business that they know will be their future," said House. "The idea that [carriers] cannot continue to invest would be death."

Others bullishly insisted that carriers will be forced to pay the price of constantly rising IP traffic.

"You can only sweat assets for so long," said Brian Barry, CEO of Hyperchip Inc. "At some point [service providers] will have to make money from packets."

"When the excess capacity in the network runs out, [Internet] users will not stop creating more traffic," said Larry Roberts, chairman and CTO of Caspian Networks. "There may be some consolidation among backbone carriers, but even with fewer carriers there will still be the same amount of Internet traffic."

"Carriers can make money on IP services, they just don't have the right tools now," added Barry.

Agreeing that carriers will someday buy next-generation routers, the panel admitted their challenge is to survive until such spending takes place. "That's why we raised the money we did," said Roberts, whose company recently recapitalized. "You have to be able to last."

Delays in the startup world raise another question: What does it mean for routing kingpin Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)?

Several discussions about routing focused on limitations of today's core routers, Cisco's specifically. Service providers, it seems, tend to buy a pair of routers for every one needed so that they can build a redundant network.

Roland Acra, VP and general manager of Cisco's Internet Routing Group, replied that "there is a lot of mythology attached [to Cisco] because we were lazy and sloppy as an industry." He said that carriers who bought routers in pairs were focused more on quick growth than reliability.

Acra says despite his competitors' knocks against Cisco, the company's core routers have achieved so-called "five nines" reliability in service provider networks. (And, he said, it's up to Cisco's customers whether to identify themselves.)

He added that startups will have a tough time breaking into the two-horse core router race between Cisco and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), because they'll need to be skilled in software, hardware, and silicon, all of which can be very expensive to a young company (see Juniper Goes Terabit With the T640). "Admission to the club is a trick, because they have to hit on many cylinders at once."

However, thanks to the evolving data network, incumbent equipment providers may eventually find their installed bases disadvantageous, according to Geoffrey Yang, a general partner at Redpoint Ventures: "An installed base is a double-edged sword. Can you make [old] software do what it wasn't originally designed to do? It could be an issue and might open up an opportunity for startups."

— Phil Harvey, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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xoip 12/4/2012 | 10:30:19 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? There some new guys out there who by their architecture can offer extremely high availability - not reliability (MTBF).
chromatic aberration 12/4/2012 | 10:30:19 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? skeptic:
I very much doubt that anyone would drive their
utilization up to 80% before upgrading or that
the entire current network is at 10% utilization (maybe in terms of fiber, but not routers).

Any recent research publications on how much a router can be flogged before the networks begins to split at the seams ?

On what basis do network designers recommend an upgrade? They must need some metric.
Bumper_car 12/4/2012 | 10:30:19 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Actually "five nines" is the reliablity tarket for end to end leased circuit services. That reliability takes into account all of the different systems, fiber facilities, multiplexers, etc. that are in a transmission network that are used to deliver that service. The irony is that some vendors' marketing groups have picked on the terms "carrier class" and "five nines reliability"as a sales tool, not understanding what the terms originally meant. Since then, the misuse of those terms have made them loose their value. In order to achieve "five nines" reliabiltiy, there has to be a lot of redundancy, fast service restoration, and systems that have a very very long MTBF. I know, I helped build an IP routed network in the early '90s that had a recorded reliability of 99.999% over a four year period.
rjmcmahon 12/4/2012 | 10:30:18 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? How many customers would choose to pay for five nine's of reliability? Even NASA recognized the cost was too great and went to things like COTS, where the markets flushed out the bugs *after* deployment.

We should service demand and stop putting up protectionist barriers which prohibit our progress.
ThinkAboutIt 12/4/2012 | 10:30:18 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Five nine's is no more than 5.25 minutes of service outage per year. For most IP equipment today, a single software upgrade wipes that out.

Many carriers (as a previous poster had indicated) build networks that are Five Nine's from a system perpsective during single node failures, but if a common software bug exists in all nodes, well then you get Worldcom's network last week, or the Washington PSTN in 1991:

skeptic 12/4/2012 | 10:30:18 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Was "carrier class" or "five nines" ever anything other than FUD words used by incumbent equipment providers and legacy telco employees to thwart the deployment of new technology?
No. It was often the opposite. Service providers
who had experience with non-IP equipment would
often complain that routers didn't have similar
features or availability. And in terms of
in-service upgrades, redundancy and other features
I dont think there is any way to say that IP
routers were not (and are not) behind other
sorts of equipment.
If not, point me to the specifications that define exactly, in a testable way, what "carrier class" or "five nines" means.

I can give you a start:

- If a vendor (Cisco lets say) shows up and
says they have five nines on their current
products but has no way of doing an in-service
upgrade of software, tell them that its not
five nines.

- If a vendor claims five nines, ask them for
their documentation of the claim. Ask them
how they tested it or proved it. Ask them what
internal procedures (continuous test runs) they
do to prove it over time. Ask them for a formal
proof on the hardware.

- Ask them for a list of components that can
cause a service interruption. In a five-nine's
system, the failure of any single component in
the system should not cause a long-term service

- If they have a high availability system, ask
them how long it takes to restore overall service
(not just how long until they can offer crippled
or partial operation). If its more than a
a couple minutes, their credibility for reaching
the downtime requirements for five nines is very

lurker 12/4/2012 | 10:30:17 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Don't know who set up a core routing conference with a bunch of startups still in vapor phase along with Cisco and no representation from Juniper Avici Pluris Procket.

Are you saying that Pluris and Procket are more than vapor phase than anyone else on this panel?
Pluris participated last year at NGN, perhaps they had nothing new to say?!

Procket was originally scheduled to appear on the panel instead of Caspian, but dropped out about 6 weeks before the conference. Perhaps they had nothing to say either?!

Facts4GoodGuy 12/4/2012 | 10:30:17 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Is Maple Network dead? or near death?
RouterOttawa 12/4/2012 | 10:30:17 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Was "carrier class" or "five nines" ever anything other than FUD words used by incumbent equipment providers and legacy telco employees to thwart the deployment of new technology?

If not, point me to the specifications that define exactly, in a testable way, what "carrier class" or "five nines" means.

Visit you friendly ITU collection. Buried therin is a specification that states that a telephone switch can be down for no more than two minutes a year, or some such (I'm doing this from memory, its been a while). When you do the math, it works out to be about five nines.

Contracts can/will specify penalties if your kit isn't up to scratch. If you can't do hot updates, you're probably screwed from the get go.
fiber_r_us 12/4/2012 | 10:30:16 PM
re: Rotten at the Core? Skeptic said:

>No. It was often the opposite. Service providers
>who had experience with non-IP equipment would
>often complain that routers didn't have similar
>features or availability. And in terms of
>in-service upgrades, redundancy and other features
>I dont think there is any way to say that IP
>routers were not (and are not) behind other
>sorts of equipment.

It is not that IP routers are behind, it is that IP gear takes a different mindset to achieve high availability (you know, two of everthing in separate boxes instead of two of everything in one box). The resistance is from the incumbent vendors and legacy technical staff in carriers not willing to consider building networks any way other than what they have been doing for decades.

Having worked on both the carrier side and the vendor side, the term "carrier class" is used simply as a way to say "we don't do it that way, and we are not willing to consider a change (even it it is better)". There in *NO WAY* to prove that a system or network is "carrier class" because there is no universally accepted definition of what it even means. The term gets thrown around when it is convienient to dismiss a technology because it is not what someone is "used to" and that someone is unwilling to learn anything else.

"Five nines" is another term that has no universally accepted meaning when it comes to networks as a whole. Yes, we can all calculate that it works out to about 5-minutes a year. But, what do those five minutes apply to? and how is it calculated on a network-wide basis?
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