Optical/IP Networks

Village Unveils "Optical Packet Node"

Today’s nascent optical networks operate under a church-and-state philosophy: Service providers use IP routers to parse data onto and off an optical backbone and use optical switches to perform the heavy lifting in the core of the network (and never the twain shall meet).

Village Networks Inc. says there’s a better way to build 21st Century networks. It’s developing a wavelength switch with built in IP routing capabilities. The company plans to officially announce its product, and its first customer trials, in November.

The benefits of consolidating IP routing and optical switching into a single network element could be tremendous -– providing a more manageable, less expensive, and potentially higher performance way for carriers to build and control optical networks carrying IP traffic.

But Village is not the only startup working on such a device. These products, sometimes known as optical packet nodes (OPNs), are set to become the hottest trend in optical networking. Light Reading has discovered six other companies working on IP routers-cum-optical switches: Caspian Networks (see Internet Pioneer Plots IP Revolution), Chiaro Networks (see Chiaro Gets $100M for "Optical Router" ), Accelight Networks Inc., Laurel Networks, Luxcore (see Luxcore Raises $10m First Round and Startup Touts "First Optical Router"), and Tropic Networks.

Like Village, most are still trying to operate in stealth mode. Nevertheless, it’s possible to glean some shared characteristics among them. The majority are working on switches designed to sit in metropolitan area networks (MANs) or regional networks, converting IP traffic to and from flows that can be sent directly over the core optical network. In Village Networks’ case, its switch, which is still unnamed, has DWDM (dense wavelength-division multiplexing) interfaces on the outside and an electrical core. Between those two components sit embedded IP packet processors.

Like most other OPN vendors, Village is quick to point out that its product is designed to work in conjunction with, not compete against, core switches from the likes of Corvis Corp. (Nasdaq: CORV), Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU), Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), Sycamore Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: SCMR), or Tellium Inc.. “We see the core network as a set of long-distance extension cords. We don’t play there,” says Kai Y. Eng, CEO and president of Village. (Eng was previously head of the broadband research department at Bell Laboratories).

The big question is: can any of these companies deliver a device that carriers will actually buy? To do so they must attain a high level of proficiency in two horribly complex networking technologies -- IP routing and wavelength switching -- and then find a way to combine them in a single logical entity.

Tall order. Until now, most startups have had trouble developing products designed for one of those technologies -- let alone both. Companies like Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), which makes IP routers, and Tellium, a manufacturer of optical switches, have succeeded in winning market share precisely because of their singleminded focus on a single technology.

Village Networks is blasé about the hardware challenges, insisting that it will use conventional ASIC technology to integrate optics with IP. “We want to do the most extraordinary things with the most mundane technology," says Eng. “This reduces cost and means we don’t have to wait for a breakthrough in physics.”

Eng says his company will differentiate itself from its competitors in its use of software. Specifically, he claims that the Village product’s unique selling point is its ability to identify and support massive numbers of individual IP flows, which in turn allows carriers to make money by offering highly reliable and differentiated IP services.

Flow capabilities such as these are the subject of the MPLambdaS standard currently being developed by the IETF (see Sycamore Faces "Moment of Truth"). Eng says Village Networks is operating “in advance” of the work on MPLambdaS, and that its product's feature set will far exceed the specifications laid out in the standard. “We can support hundreds of thousands of flows. Millions of flows!” crows Eng, who claims that the product’s capabilities are protected by ten patents.

It remains to be seen how established networking vendors like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Lucent, and Nortel –- all of which currently sell IP routers and optical switches as autonomous devices -- will react to an influx of combination products, although the potential for a spate of acquisitions is high.

For its part, Village Networks claims to have no intention of being bought out. It even has a date set aside for its initial public offering -- Q4 2001.

The company has a staff of 80 and has received $10 million in first-round funding from Geocapital Partners.

-- Stephen Saunders, US Editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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