Comms chips

LVL7 Adds Upgrade, Cash

An embedded software startup claims to have found a winning niche, and an impressive lineup of early customers seems to back this claim. But industry sources question whether it can move fast enough to gain on its growing roster of competition.

LVL7 Systems Inc., a company headquartered in Cary, N.C., claims the latest iteration of its Fastpath software, announced today, can save makers of networking gear up to a year of design time, along with associated costs (see LVL7 Upgrades Fastpath Software).

What's more, LVL7 says it's already sold enough earlier versions of Fastpath to chipmakers and equipment vendors to realize a 65 percent growth in revenues over the past three quarters. As a result, LVL7 say it's in line for $10 million in new funding next quarter. The startup says it will use the money to fund a sales team able to cope with an "overflow" of qualified leads.

LVL7 started in November 1999 with $10 million initial funding from Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) (Nasdaq: AMCC) and Accton Technology Corp., a Taiwanese OEM of Ethernet interface cards, switches, and routers. Founder Ernest Baker was CEO of Accton Americas and formerly worked at IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM), as have most of the key executives at LVL7.

Going forward, experts say the 60-person startup will need all the help it can get. At least one partner says LVL7 has a product that's more complete than those from competitors. But competition from other startups is growing. And some fear that LVL7 may not be able to stand up to several of the established embedded systems players that are aiming squarely at the same niche.

Let's examine that niche. LVL7 says it can supply software to provide device interfaces, network management, routing protocols, and other basic but essential functions for ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) or network processors. As a result, both makers of silicon and OEM equipment makers save enormous amounts of time and money and can stick to their core competency in hardware or chip design.

The need for such software is becoming increasingly apparent. Some large silicon makers have chosen to jettison network processor subsidiaries rather than sink more development and marketing into them (see Vitesse Drops Some Packets). And silicon vendors and equipment makers are looking to cut costs by outsourcing costly design and development processes.

The company began supplying functional software for specific chips and network processors, such as those from AMCC. Over time, its roster grew to include chips from Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL), SwitchCore AB (Stockholm: SCOR), and Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: VTSS), as well as several equipment makers that make their own ASICs (see LVL7, AMCC Integrate Solutions and LVL7, Marvell Team on GigE).

With today's announcement, LVL7 says it's taken a step toward extending its compatibility even further, by offering basic software that's generic enough to work with nearly any vendor's chips, embedded operating systems, and protocol suites.

An executive at one vendor that has worked with LVL7 -- who asked not to be named -- thinks the startup's ready to work with a broader range of silicon and operating systems: "They offer a more complete solution. The problem is they're competing in a space that's growing fast, with established players."

Almost all of LVL7's partners also are working with other so-called "merchant software" makers, ones that represent the key competitors the startup faces. The list is headed by publicly held embedded software firm Wind River Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: WIND). Also in line is Radlan Computer Communications Ltd., a company that creates production-ready Ethernet switches and subsystems, incorporating software that's generic enough to fit a range of ASICs and other vendor-supplied elements. Data Connection Ltd. (DCL), a U.K.-based firm, specializes in writing complex code involving a range of protocols, including Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and others associated with networking (see Data Connection Wins NEC Order). Future Communications Software is another protocol specialist with a focus on network processors.

There's a growing roster of newer companies too: IP Infusion Inc., specializes in core routing and switching control-plane software (see IP Infusion Adds IS-IS, IP Infusion, Consystant Collaborate, and IBM, IP Infusion, S3 Demo Jointly). NetPlane Systems Inc. features software for controlling IP quality of service (see NetPlane Aims at Simpler QoS). Teja Technologies Inc. writes software for network processors from Intel and others (see Why Intel Loves Teja ).

Only time will tell whether LVL7 can gain on this kind of competition. So far, it looks to be building good relationships. One equipment vendor, Quantum Bridge Communications Inc., gives an example of how LVL7's software helped save the cost of developing software for the 24-port Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet cards used in its access gear. Kyoo Lee, VP of data networking at Quantum Bridge, says without LVL7 the company would have had to hire six to eight developers to work one and a half years on the software they needed.

But Lee is clear that the relationship isn't etched in stone. He says that when he needed it a couple of years ago, there weren't any other suppliers. Lee says he's not ready to change things now but will certainly look at the other players that have subsequently come down the pike if he needs to do so, despite enjoying "a good working relationship" with LVL7.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading
inquisitive_brain 12/4/2012 | 10:00:03 PM
re: LVL7 Adds Upgrade, Cash I don't understand, how providing all the services level7 talks about providing, is going to reduce the "market to time" of the box etc. The customisation of services itself is/should be a great timeconsumer. You can't expect a plug and play device atleast when make comm boxes. Moreover, this again does not provide a not so complete picture.

Besides, how the reporter missed the leading suppliers of IP routing protocol stacks esp for the Optical Control Plane Viz. Netplane Systems Inc and DCL seems is quite a point to ponder.
Mary Jander 12/4/2012 | 9:59:59 PM
re: LVL7 Adds Upgrade, Cash Point taken on the vendors listed. I've added some names.
wizwaud 12/4/2012 | 9:59:47 PM
re: LVL7 Adds Upgrade, Cash What about Nexthop ? As far as I know their CTO is actively involved in the Network Processor Forum ?

communications 12/4/2012 | 9:58:49 PM
re: LVL7 Adds Upgrade, Cash LVL7s provides the FASTPATH architecture, Layer 2/Layer 3/Layer 4+ protocols, Box and System services, Integrated with - microcode (for NPs) and Device Drivers (for ASICs/ASSPs) on major silicon vendors reference boards. Other silicon support is done by their recently announced MasterDriver product.

By providing all of the above in source and binary, LVL7 allows system vendors, networking OEM vendors and System Integrators to develop/modify and enhance the networking software offering to meet target market needs e.g. Enterprise (Desktop, Workgroup, backbone 10/100/1000 Mbps), Access (DSLAMs, EFM access devices, PON) or appliance solutions.

The FASTPATH product available on the silicon reference board is a COMPLETE product solution that the potential equipment vendor can put in their wiring closet for interoperability testing. The challenges of porting on various OS - VxWorks, embedded Linux with integration and optimization with data plane code of silicon vendors is done. This development, porting, integration effort saves software development enginneering time and cost of development and gets to market earlier.

In FASTPATH 3.0 LVL7 has released MasterDriver which allows equipment vendors/OEMs to port the integrated networking solution on silicon of their choice e.g. the networking device being built may use NPs and ASICs (including control plane processors) for high end systems. FASTPATH MasterDriver allows seamless integration from a networking software suite standpoint.

FASTPATH is not a shrinkwrap protocol (ipv4, bgp4, Multicast etc.) offering running on a linux PC where the integration to the silicon is left to the the system vendor. LVL7 offer the complete switching/routing/management protocols and RFCs integrated and optimized to the networking silicon board for either Vxworks or embedded Linux. The LVL7 product runs on the actual silicon reference board which is sold by the silicon vendors to the networking equipment vendor or OEM customers.

FASTPATH architecure allows equipment (networking OEM) vendors to add their legacy protocols to the FASTPATH software system so as to protect the OEMs intellectual property invested in previous products.

Modifications and additional plugins (applications - security(VPN), VOIP, loadbalancing etc.) can be added to this FASTPATH product by the system vendor to build switching appliances and content delivery network infrastructure.

More details are on LVL7 website in their FASTPATH white paper.. http://www.lvl7.com
communications 12/4/2012 | 9:58:39 PM
re: LVL7 Adds Upgrade, Cash
Routing protocol (control plane only) vendors providing software like NextHop/DCL/IPInfusion have their technology architected to separate the CPU and network element (NP or ASIC) routing for a single routing protocol environment e.g (OSPF / MPLS / BGP will not share routes in the offering, that is left to the system vendor to implement resulting in redo'ing the routing table).

Each protocol stack offering is functionaly demonstrable on the CPU/PC, but integration to silicon and entire system is left to the system vendor companies. It takes a lot more than a stack running on PC/servers ie the control plane CPU only - to get software optimized and integrated with the Network Processor (microcode) or ASIC (device drivers).

In order to implement the routing protocol and work in a networking system with logging, all MIBs need to be implemented, with SNMP (v1,v2,v3) agent interaction, Web based Management, CLI, interacting with Layer 2, QOS, MultiCast, application plugins etc working as a system takes a lot of time in architecure, development and integration with the dataplane (microcode or device drivers) and selected OS for a silicon networking IC.

Today, the protocol provider vendor leaves all that integration and optimization to the system vendor. Thus the value of the shrink-wrap protocol providers is more apparent in server/PC world where they can leverage the modular architeture at the CPU and OS level. In the complex and challenging world of embedded networking systems of NPs/ASICs - the system vendor is left to figure the architecure and development issues, resulting in delays in focusing on their true value proposition of their engg. team in developing intellectual property and differentiated service offerings.

Having an embedded networking software product and a OS and Silicon independent software architecture allowing any protocol to be integrated on the actual networking silicon provides a far greater advantage to help equipment vendors to meet their needs.

Equipment vendors management and development teams are trying to meet some of the following goals:

- Reduce cost of product development and increase productivity per engineer

- Bring leading edge functionality with technology and market differentiation and/or enhanced services (e.g. IP Storage switching, Switch/Routers - 100/1000 Mbps with Applications like Caching, Security, Wireless etc. - naturally based on their focused market segment)

- Get to Market early if that helps them establish market leadership by improving cost of IT deployment and improving operations for their customer.

If equipment vendors can get a software solution that allows them to focus on their core value of specific application development or intellectual property (legacy or new technologies) to meet the above goals and further save them time and money -it establishes them as early market leaders with a customer base.

This is very apparent in the NP market, where the challenge is not only in building the hardware subsystem but in having a portable and flexible system level software that can be integrated with the microcode and then leveraged/modified to add plugin applications and services to meet specific market needs. A control plane CPU supported protocol stack is one very small portion of the system in a case like this.
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