Optical networks have given national carriers tremendous capacity, but not yet a way to make big bucks from that capacity. Optical switching adds the ability to more flexibly manage lightpaths across a backbone and consolidate core network equipment, but it remains a method of switching circuits, from STS1s up to OC192s. This focus on the transport network — and thus the range of services supported by an optically switched network — remains limited to three or four “grades” of capacity leases. This allows carriers such as Williams Communications Group (NYSE: WCG) to improve the economics of wavelength services, but it does little to specifically address a burgeoning demand for enhanced IP service creation, and it does nothing to help carriers make money from such IP services.
Enter the “service-aware switch.” This isn’t an industry category just yet, but it will be by the onset of 2001. It’s a decidedly broad term but, broadly speaking, the service-aware switch is a hardware and software platform built to take service providers out of the commodity IP transport business into enhanced IP services.
These switches have substantial packet processing capabilities and can therefore perform a “deep read” of packets as they enter the switch. They perform the necessary classification, queuing, shaping, and policing of flows to give operators the opportunity to build enhanced IP services around these features. These switches often collect statistics on this processing and make it available to billing systems or for SLA (service-level agreement) verification and trend analysis.
With switches like these, carriers can, ideally, simplify their existing data networks by pushing service creation to the edge of the network — the metro POPs (points of presence) — and providing a common adaptation layer, typically MPLS, or multiprotocol label switching. (Adding MPLS to IP is being proffered as a way to replace pricey ATM as a switching and traffic management technology, and a host of vendors are lining up behind it -- startups and stalwarts alike.)
So what sort of enhanced services can these switches deliver? Anyone studying ATM over the past ten years will recognize them: multimedia, videoconferencing, circuit emulation (voice), secure VPNs (virtual private networks), bandwidth on demand, MAN/WAN internetworking, transparent LAN — all the applications ATM was supposed to support, but without the nasty “cell tax” or limited scaleability beyond OC12.
The service-aware switch market is already crowded and in need of segmentation. Like most other equipment categories, a rough division into core and edge systems is useful. In the case of the service-aware switch, each of those can be further segmented to pure IP and hybrids. Here are the four categories of service-aware switches, as announced thus far:
It’s important to state here what these switches are not: edge routers. The edge router crowd continues to evolve the functionality of the router with MPLS and high-touch packet processing. This will continue to blur the boundary between an edge router and an edge switch, though services will always be a focus at the network edge. Cisco Systems Inc.’s (Nasdaq: CSCO) upcoming GSR 10000; and equipment from Laurel Networks; Amber Networks Inc.; Unisphere Solutions Inc. (Nasdaq: UNSP), via Redstone; Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR); Riverstone Networks; and Redback Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: RBAK), via Siara, represent players here. Where edge routers fit into the landscape of networks in 2001 is an ongoing debate, but they will often sit alongside service switches in complementary fashion, not in competition.
It will be interesting to watch which carriers take the plunge next year. Wholesale and retail carriers each have good reasons to give these a try, making service switches increasingly attractive to investors. RBOCs (regional Bell operating companies) need these to get out of the circuits business; carriers’ carriers can benefit from the “virtualization” of their fixed assets; and CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers) need anything that increases revenue streams in a tightening capital market. Fingers are crossed that MPLS delivers on its promise and doesn’t end up spoken of in the same dismissive tones that ATM often is today.
— Scott Clavenna, director of research, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com