Will Soapstone end routing's magic kingdom?

Today, an unlikely company is singing its own proud song, and maybe it will mark the end of routing's magical age. The company? Avici Systems. The song? Universal control plane.

The first Broadway show I saw was "Camelot," and in it Robert Goulet, as Lancelot, stood proudly on the stage and proclaimed, "C'est moi!" -- It is I! That marked the beginning of the end for Camelot. Today, an unlikely company is singing its own proud song, and maybe it will mark the end of routing's magical age.

The company? Avici Systems. The song? Universal control plane.

For a decade, people have discussed the idea of separating network control from the network layer, creating a separate control plane. The Multi-Service Switching Forum had the notion in the dot-com bubble period, and the International Telecommunication Union's NGN project proposes something similar. So, too, does the IPsphere Forum. For all the interest, however, the concept of a separate control plane has received scanty vendor attention. Maybe the big router players have too much to lose, or the start-ups have too little credibility with service providers. What's left? Says Avici, "C'est moi!"

Avici was one of the few new-age router darlings that survived the bubble. The company says its experience with high-reliability core routing in a converging world positions it to understand the needs of the future. Avici has formed a separate business unit called Soapstone Networks to meet these needs. Avici proposes to separate the control plane, not only for IP but also from it. The Avici control plane could control an Ethernet or optical network as easily as a router network. Soapstone controls the network, period.

The "two degrees of separation" notion fits well with current service provider thinking that maybe IP isn't the right foundation for everything. More providers are looking at Provider Backbone Transport (PBT), an Ethernet variation, as well as hybrids of Ethernet and agile optical devices, such as reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexers. These technologies offer lower equipment costs and better predictability than routers do, and, according to some providers, even more than MPLS can offer. Soapstone would give these other technologies the benefit of an IP control plane, and because service-management software links to the network's control plane, Soapstone would provide common operations management for any network, based on any protocol.

The adaptation layer concept also fits into higher-level service and application trends. In the IP Multimedia Subsystem's evolution toward a complete, fixed-mobile convergence mission, the ITU has proposed a resource-access and -control facility that manages network resources for applications, creating a single interface through which services can be requested and controlled. Soapstone's APIs would make it possible to support IP Multimedia Subsystem applications over any network that Soapstone can manage -- which is pretty much any network, according to Avici.

All this could be an embarrassment to the big router competitors, but it gets even more interesting when Avici's IPsphere positioning is considered. Despite the fact that Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and Juniper are in the forum and have been there longer than Avici, none of them has announced a product offering to support any aspect of IPsphere -- particularly Juniper, whose work arguably kicked off IPsphere in the first place. Now, along comes Avici, which has committed not only to implement the IPsphere-to-equipment interface, but also to begin interoperability testing with other vendors that have done other parts of the IPsphere framework.

Do Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and Juniper believe there's no need for a uniform control mechanism for all network technologies, or are they afraid that there is? Could it be that the notion of an IP-like control plane for PBT is a direct slap at MPLS -- which all the big router guys support -- and therefore at router sales and margins? In any case, a uniform-control-plane solution from a credible vendor forces the issue. You can't ignore a trend that's threatening to envelop you. So listen up, router incumbents: Lancelot may be starting his song.

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