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Optical/IP

Village Networks: Ahead of the Pack?

Village Networks Inc. has stepped ahead of several other early-mode startups to announce an optical packet node (OPN) product and a trial customer.

But the product has just gone into beta, and the trial has yet to start.

Village Networks's iOPN2000 is slated for delivery in mid-2001, the vendor said today. It also announced that Global Crossing Ltd. (Nasdaq: GBLX) will be the first of an unspecified number of "U.S. and international carriers" to beta-test the product. The box is "currently in the hands of the carrier," the vendor says, even though the trial hasn't begun. Global Crossing is also a backer of Village Networks, via its Global Crossing Ventures division.

Clearly, despite its early announcement, Village Networks must still prove it can live up to its claims. But that doesn't mean the news isn't exciting on two counts: First, OPNs are one of the hottest beacons on the horizon of optical networking, and Village Networks is one of several vendors that say they're developing gear (see Village Networks). By combining the functions of a router and an optical switch, OPNs are supposed to let carriers quickly and efficiently set up different types of IP services over a range of transport media, including DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing) channels. So any news of them is significant.

The second point of interest is that Village Networks' announcement contains the most information any OPN vendor has chosen to reveal about its product. So far, information's been tough to glean from potential competitors, such as Accelight Networks Inc., Caspian Networks, Chiaro Networks, Laurel Networks, Luxcore Networks Inc., and Tropic Networks Inc.. These startups have been open about their funding (see Caspian Prepares for an IPO, Chiaro Gets $100M for "Optical Router" , and Startup Touts "First Optical Router"), but they've clammed up when it comes to exactly what they're doing.

Village Networks, in contrast, has taken the wraps off its platform, explaining its architecture is based on MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical systems) and custom ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits). And it's pointed out just how it plans to create features for its OPN:

"We apply intelligence to an optical engine and packet engine," says CEO and founder Kai Eng. "That enables us to provide data beaming, unbreakable IP connections." Among other things, Eng says the box uses Sonet framing to apply automatic restoral to each traffic flow.

Analysts seems impressed with Village Networks' direction. "Village Networks combines multiple functions of previous technologies into a single platform that's easier to manage, then applies granular control over IP flows," says Susan Almeida, founder and managing partner at Network Strategy Partners LLC.

In theory, this tack is set to help carriers finally make major money from IP services.

"You can't charge a premium for service unless you can deliver a service that performs at a premium," says Tom Nolle, president of consultancy CIMI Corp.. Nolle, who discloses that he's acted as a consultant to Village Networks, says OPNs are "the only way" carriers will be able to make as much money from next-generation IP services as they have from private lines.

But Village Networks hasn't "made it" yet. According to Nolle, any kind of lead is tough to maintain in this market. OPN vendors are often coerced by their backers into claiming product capabilities too soon, he says.

According to Susan Almeida, the market is shaping up quickly, and competition's going to be fierce. "Time to market is an important advantage," she acknowledges. But it only works if products actually materialize on schedule and work as promised.

-- Mary Jander, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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