Zettacom: Hurry Up and Wait

So many startups are developing multiservice provisioning platforms these days that shipping them ahead of the competition has become a crucial issue.

A new(ish) startup, Zettacom Inc. says it can help. It’s developing some silicon that promises to slash development times for this type of equipment. However, a question mark hangs over Zettacom's own time to market.

Here’s the score. When OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) develop optical networking gear they usually pick a switching fabric from one supplier and network processors from another. Then they have to spend a year or so developing so-called “glue logic” to make the two things work with each other.

Zettacom says that OEMs can avoid this long delay by buying their switching fabric and their network processors from the same vendor. And, you may ask, which vendor might that be? Well, as it happens, Zettacom is developing both devices and plans to sell them as a plug-and-play module with the glue logic already developed. This arrangement also means that users get a lot of extra functions and features, according to Zettacom, because the two chips and the software have been designed to work with each other.

Right now, Zettacom isn’t providing much information about its developments. Its switching fabric, called Zest, will handle cells, packets, and circuits –- which is pretty much what all the latest developments aim to do these days. And its network processor, called Zen, will handle a wide range of protocols including MPLS (multi-protocol label switching).

So, is it hot, or not?

There are two schools of thought on this. One school says other vendors, like IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Lucent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: LU) already make switching fabric and network processors, and they don’t make a big thing of selling them as a package. Why? Because system designers usually want a free choice of components for their particular project.

The other school says that time-to-market has become so crucial that OEMs are prepared to compromise on performance.

Now for the crunch. Zettacom’s own time-to-market is a matter of conjecture. It will ship samples of Zest and Zen “soon," according to Paul Liesenberg, the startup’s Director of Strategic Marketing. But he declines to be more spezific.

Competitors say that Zettacom has taken on a huge challenge. Developing switching fabric and network processor chips could easily take a team of 50 engineers two years, according to one rival, who requested anonymity. Zettacom currently has 50 engineers and the number is “growing quickly,” according to Liesenberg. But Zettacom has only been going since October 1999.

“It’s a case of if they can do it, hats off to them,” says another competitor, who also requested anonymity. He notes that Zettacom’s key staff are “some really good guys from Cisco, who might be able to pull it off.” The fact that Zettacom was founded by Wu-Fu Chen also suggests that there’s some substance behind its claims.

-- Peter Heywood, international editor, Light Reading
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