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The Coolest Router on Earth?

Irvine Sensors bets $55 million that superconductor technologies will be the next wave for high-speed routers

July 30, 2001

4 Min Read
The Coolest Router on Earth?

The science reportedly once used to put willing participants into suspended animation may be linked to the future of broadband routers.

Irvine Sensors Corp. (Nasdaq: IRSN; Boston: ISC) has announced preliminary funding of $55 million for a high-speed router spinoff that will use superconducting technology -- a technique that, like cryogenics, involves freezing.

But in Irvine Sensors' case, what's being frozen are ceramics, not Walt Disney. The solid materials are cooled at extremely low temperatures, eliminating their electrical resistance. The result is a conductor capable of shunting digital signals over telecom links an order of magnitude faster than today's high-end routers. Experimental labs have managed to get superconductors to transmit digital data at rates to 740 Gbit/s.

Superconducting isn't just fast, it's smart. Since it works with electrical signals, it can be used to scrutinize packets at incredibly high rates. That means it's ideal for use in telecom switching, routing, and provisioning.

Irvine Sensors isn't alone in its quest for a new router technology. Atlantic Technology Ventures Inc. (ATLC) has started its own superconducting router project. Chipmaker HYPRES Inc. is working on the concept (see Out of the Lab: Really Cool Chips). And superconductor vendors such as ISCO International say it's in their future plans.

One question: Isn't it pointless to focus on such futuristic technology when existing firms are struggling? And where does superconducting leave optical networking -- out in the cold?

Irvine Sensors insists it's not too soon to start talking about the next generation of routers -- ones that will handle Internet bottlenecks two to three years from now. "If we don't do this now, we won't be ready when it's needed," says Irvine Sensors spokeswoman Lynn O'Mara. "We have ongoing communication with the leading router vendors, and this is what they say they're going to require."

Because it allows scrutiny of packets at high speeds, superconductor research has been backed by government agencies intent on creating high-speed digital surveillance gear.

Indeed, Irvine Sensors has worked this situation to its advantage. Its business plan calls for the development of a "SuperRouter," using funds obtained from U.S. government agencies under the auspices of the Small Business Innovation Research Program. One of the contributors: the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. In order to peddle the product commercially, Irvine has formed a spinoff called iNetWorks Corp.

iNetWorks has just one employee today -- CEO Mel R. Brashears, a former COO of Lockheed Martin. When the SuperRouter is ready (the company says a prototype won't be available until sometime next year at the earliest), he'll license the technology developed by Irvine Sensors and create a company to market, support, and further develop the product.

To spin off iNetWorks, Irvine Sensors has enlisted the help of an independent investment firm, which shall remain nameless until the company files its proxy statement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sometime in August. That firm has set up terms to create more shares of Irvine Sensors stock in order to generate $55 million in capital to launch the startup.

Irvine Sensors used a similar tack of working with government to create Novalog Inc., a startup with infrared subsystems for wireless communications, and RedHawk Vision Inc., a company with a proprietary enhanced video framing format that's been adopted by the likes of Adobe Systems Inc. and Apple Computer.

These spinoffs follow Irvine Sensors' pattern of obtaining grants as a small business, developing technology with government funds, then creating subsidiaries for the commercialization of new products based on the innovation. So far, it's a strategy that's worked: Currently, the company generates about 40 percent of its revenues from technologies developed originally with government funding.

Irvine Sensors says it's using some superconductor technology from TRW, which also offers high-end commercial superconductor coolers for spacecraft. The SuperRouter is being designed to support a 512x512 switching matrix, with each port achieving throughput of 40 Gbit/s, Irvine Sensors says. And it will be smart, capable of packing the "equivalent of eight 'state-of-the-art,' seven-feet-high router bays into a single bay" and offering "100 times the throughput of what is available today."

There are plenty of potential pitfalls in the plan. For one thing, the kinks are definitely not worked out of superconductor technology. Take the case of TeraComm Inc. (no Website), a company with a plan for fiber optic transceivers based on superconductors. Originally seeded by ATLC, TeraComm is now pursuing other investors because ATLC refuses to give it more money until "certain milestones are met."

It's also not clear whether having one simple piece of the router puzzle -- superconductiing components -- will enable a new breed of router. Routers also require a large amount of software work and compatibility with other networking gear.

Irvine Sensor officials acknowledge that plans for an avant garde are fraught with risk. The company admits that at least two of its ventures aren't showing any products yet.

- Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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