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Optical/IP Networks

Wanted! Service Provider Pros

Light Reading needs your help.

No, we’re not going to ask you to send $4.99 – plus self-addressed envelope – to our trailer park in Ohio. (Though, of course, if you do feel like sending us five dollars we guarantee to triple your money in three weeks or less, friends!)

Actually, Light Reading is launching a shiny new feature next month (September), and we need your suggestions – or, more specifically, your nominations. Our newest editorial offering is a list ranking the “Top 10 Service Provider Innovators” worldwide.

The list's purpose is to recognize those individuals who are making the key technology and business decisions within service provider networks. We also want to rank the performance of those individuals over time, based on the network performance of the services for which they are responsible, and the net worth of the carriers to whom they are responsible.

We’ll update the list once a day (yeah, right). And we may even have some sort of dinner affair in New York later this year to fête the most nominated service providers. (I’m thinking: drinking, a mariachi band, and a piñata in the shape of Bernie Ebbers.)

Now, we already have our own ideas about who should be on this new list (bien sûr!) but we also need to hear yours – principally because many of these innovators hide out far, far away from the glare of their employers’ PR machines, deep within the cavernous recesses of service provider and carrier networks.

To nominate a service provider maven, please click here: We’ll announce the results on Light Reading on September 3rd.

But why another list, you ask, and why now? (Especially when some of our other Top 10 Lists are languishing like poorly watered office hydrangeas). It’s a good question. And the answer lies in the current state of the telecommunications industry.

And what a state it’s in! (Read: Alabama.)

You would expect that the telecom industry’s woes would result in a “new realism” on the part of the vendors and investors. And you would be wrong.

In fact, we’ve noticed that the telecom turmoil has created a sort of general marketing miasma in our industry, making it harder – not easier – to get a bead on what’s really happening in telecom, and when (if ever) we can expect a turnaround.

It’s recognizable by four symptoms of feebleness, which we’ve ranked here with Light Reading’s patented Feebleometer™.

1) Shrinking Violet Executives
    Feeble rating:
Daddy, my tummy hurts!

Typically, a crisis produces one or more leaders who emerge to lead “us” (the huddled masses, wretched refuse, etc.) to the light at the end of the tunnel with some soothing words and inspirational behavior. Sadly, this is far from being the case in the telecom market, where most execs seem more concerned about how far under water their options are.

A couple of years ago, while the great optical bubble was still being inflated, Light Reading had to employ a large and knotty stick to beat off requests from PR people to interview their CEOs. (Note: Some PR people begged us to continue the beatings long after their clients had fired them. Sad, really.) These days, and with a few notable exceptions, executives are hard to find (when they can be found at all).

2) Testing Troubles
    Feeble rating:
They’ve fallen, and they can’t get up!

Having your product prove that it works as advertised in an independent evaluation (or “bakeoff”) used to be viewed as a surefire way for companies to walk the walk for potential customers. Not any more. Getting vendors (both large and small) to submit their kit to Light Reading’s independent test program this year has been like pulling teeth. While jogging.

One notable nadir of our 2002 test program has been Juniper Networks Inc.’s (Nasdaq: JNPR) decision to suddenly back out of our upcoming test of edge routers, just after acquiring Unisphere Networks Inc., a Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE) startup and (FYsigh) an edge-router vendor... Go figure. Juniper previously set the standard for participating in – and winning – every test for which it has products (see Juniper Wins Monster Router Test). Its reason for not participating? It says it can’t afford it [ed. note: insert sound of jaw dropping]. This is especially bizarre, seeing that Light Reading is paying for the test. Is this behavior representative of der neue Juniper? We hope not, though a trained arborist might point out that, when you strip away its outer bark, juniper is a soft, porous wood that burns almost as easily as a sycamore.

Yet more egregious is Marconi plc’s (Nasdaq/London: MONI) decision to back out of our test of multiservice switches. On the one hand, the company is in the worst possible shape imaginable – it's bleeding from every orifice and its comb-over is becoming more noticeable by the day. On the other hand, it just happens, by common agreement to have a kick-ass multiservice switch. On the third, er... appendage, it’s made virtually zero progress taking multiservice contracts away from the incumbents in North America. So what does it have to lose? (Besides pints of blood.) Marconi’s behavior indicates that not only is it incapable of being a successful company – it doesn’t deserve to be successful. It continues to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rather than view such tests as huge opportunities (and free ones at that) such companies are basically sending a message that they’ve given up – as well as closing the window on what their next-gen products can really do.

3) Absurdist Press Releases
    Feeble rating:
Giggly Japanese schoolgirl.

One of the last remaining sources of amusement (read: bile production) for Light Reading is the ever-widening gulf between the marketing hype put out by vendors and the reality of what’s actually happening on service providers’ networks. (Regular Light Readers know this as a theme touched on before on our site, but it’s especially valid today – as all that playful splashing turns to drowning throughout much of the industry).

A common ploy startup vendors use is to announce "revenue shipments" to large incumbent service providers. When you dig a little deeper, you almost always find out that these revenue shipments are merely the goods that changed hands so the service provider could do some preliminary testing on the startup's gear. They weren't interested in the gear. They just wanted to make sure that it would catch fire if they decided to test it against their regular suppliers' gear.

And, natch, when we ask specific questions of the startup vendors, they giggle and hide behind their customers' non-disclosure agreements, which makes the fact that they're talking to the press all the more silly.

In fact, the only thing sillier is the rare (and priceless) occasion when the service provider reveals the true extent of the deal. Witness a recent contract “win” by LightPointe Communications Inc. (pron: Lightpointy, at least around here) with Red Spectrum of Ol’ London Town (see Free Spacey CLEC?). A spokesperson for Red Ken Networks was at pains to explain how it had managed to keep its costs down because it didn’t have any customers and thus had not had to build a network. Deucedly clever, old top! (We presume the same spokesperson then launched into a rousing chorus of Chim Chim Cher-ee in his best Dick Van Dyke accent, but sadly, our reporter did not include it in the article).

Conclusion: Startups count customers in the same shady manner that Floridians tally election results, and, rather than listen to victory declarations, we'd rather just go straight to the service providers and get the real deal, regardless of how Dada-esque it might be.

4) Herd VCs
    Feeble rating:
Stands on three legs and whines sadly. Maximally feeble.

It’s difficult to put into words how poorly most VCs have performed during the current telecom crisis. So here’s a picture. It’s true: The vast majority of venture capitalists have proven once and for all that they are herd animals – wildebeests or, perhaps... quaggas? Basically, they stand around this Serengeti that is the networking industry, looking for the next technology watering hole (clue: this month the watering hole is called “biotech and healthcare”). Once one spies it, off they all trot and drink it dry – and then blame each other for chugging too quickly. (OK, so it’s not a perfect analogy. You could eat a wildebeest, if you had to).

Some VCs are sitting on over a billion dollars in investment capital, gradually whittling it down with their fat 3 percent annual management fees, and refusing to invest until “things look up.” In doing so they are ignoring one of the fundamental rules of investing (that a down market presents opportunity to those who know where to look) and proving that they know absolutely zzzip! about the technologies about which they once so freely pontificated.

Though VCs like to fancy themselves as high-stakes gamblers that "go big or go home," most of them, in fact, are just passive-aggressive accountants with runaway egos. They're risk-averse weasels in $2,000 suits looking to hitch their wagons to any momentum market – or idea – that they can take credit for while simultaneously blaming the real innovators for their lack of management prowess.

Overall, vendors and VC’s fecklessness is making it harder to get an accurate reading of exactly where the industry is headed. And as the current telecom downturn spawns yet more absurd marketing messages, and yet less inspirational leadership, we believe that there is no better antidote to such vendor nonsense than a straight shot of reality direct from their customers.

Witness our recent coverage of Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS). A lot of systems vendors talk about MPLS as though it’s already sweeping through customer networks. But in a recent analysis, two out of three service providers interviewed poured cold water (if not actual scorn) over that viewpoint (see The New Legacy Network). It’s exactly that kind of visibility into service provider plans that we’re planning to develop using features like our “Top 10 Service Provider Innovators” list.

In fact, the “Top 10 Service Provider Innovators” list is just one component of a yet larger move into service provider coverage by Light Reading. Next month we’ll be launching a new site, called the Service Provider Circle (SPC). Its mission is to concentrate tremendous volumes of vital service provider information in one spot, and provide access to it for qualified visitors for free. We will do this through partnerships with research and analysis firms that, without exception, are leaders in their areas of concentration.

The purpose of the Service Provider Circle is to provide a network access point, if you will, where service providers, and other interested parties, can collocate with their peers. If you wish to register for this new section of Light Reading, please click here:

— Stephen Saunders, Founding Editor, Light Reading
http://www.lightreading.com

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