Hot shots from the past: Paul Severino and the go-go years

Severino on the dot-com bubble, routers, Interop

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Paul Severino

The golden age of networking - the 1980s and 90s that saw the rise of corporate local-area networks and the Internet become woven into the gleaming ribbon of world communication - was the work of entrepreneurs. And Paul Severino, who co-founded a number of start-ups, the best-known being Wellfleet Communications -- personifies that era to the max, having ridden its ups and downs.

Read other profiles from the past in our 25th anniversary package.

Slideshow: Evolution of the router

An engineer by training, Severino went to work in product development for Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in the era of the mini-computer in the 1970s. "Digital had VAXes they wanted to network. In '81 along came Ethernet, with Digital, Intel and Xerox — they got the technology from Xerox Parc — agreeing on the Ethernet specification," says Severino, "And IBM had token-ring."

The age of the LAN was dawning, and from then on, says Severino, he only worked at start-ups. First Severino launched Interlan, a designer of data communications hubs. "I was good at seeing the future," Severino says, recalling he visited Sun, led by Scott McNealy and Bill Joy, the "first week they opened their doors" in 1982.

But what Severino became best known for is cofounding Wellfleet Communications, the data router manufacturer, in 1986, with Bill Seifert, Steven Willis and David Rowe in Bedford, Mass., as competition to build and sell IP routers took off. Cisco had been founded in 1984 by Stanford University computer operations specialists -- and married couple -- Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner.

For Severino, who became the company's CEO, it was the start of a roller-coaster ride that began as fast-growing Wellfleet, which had gone public, merged in 1994 with SynOptics Communications, a switch manufacturer specializing in Asynchronous Transfer Mode, to form Bay Networks. Severino was chairman at Bay when it was acquired by Nortel for $9 billion in 1998. Severino admits he was lucky to have seen the company sold "right before the bubble."

The dot-com bubble popped in the year 2000, which saw Wall Street tumble resulting in tech stocks taking a pounding and humbling more than a few. (Many believe it was a cumulative effect of over-investments by e-commerce ventures and other Internet wannabes whose business models didn't pan out).

Severino, who spent a few years as CEO at NetCentric, says it was painful to witness two high-tech start-ups, Tenor Networks and PhotonEx, where he served on the board of directors, close during those burst-bubble years, even after both raised several million dollars. Today, the industry looks much different than it did in the heyday of networking's golden era: Nortel is in bankruptcy and Sun has been acquired by Oracle. Severino's first workplace, DEC, was acquired by Compaq in '98, itself bought by HP in 2002.

But Severino, with an unfazed love for networking technologies, isn't ready to call it quits. He now sits on the board of directors at Sonus Networks and Analog Devices. He's a trustee at his college alma mater, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He's particularly proud that his family, joined by others, started a research fund at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston that's grown from $3 million to $80 million to explore genetic research into cancer, especially using networking technologies to assist in that.

What Severino recalls vividly about the early years of the Internet is that it was entrepreneurs in tiny start-ups — not the large telecom companies of the time or IBM, for example — that seemed to willingly carry the biggest loads in terms of taking the vision and making it a reality. They believed in open standards and protocols and risked all on it. They had to work hard to get to network interoperability, hammering out standards at the IETF, and building the myriad core components from scratch.

The Internet took shape in meetings among techies — he remembers one that organizers called "Nerds by the Bay" out in Monterey, Calif., in 1988 — that eventually morphed into the annual Interop Conference where the early network pioneers did hands-on testing tried to find out if their routers and other gear could exchange packets. They did, and nothing's been the same since.

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