New high-end routers emerge

Despite dour telecom market, big-ticket products keep on coming.

Alcatel and Chiaro Networks last week became the latest entrants - or re-entrants, in Alcatel's case - in the core router market, a space with high barriers to entry in terms of development cost, long sales cycles, two entrenched and dominant players, and reduced customer spending.

Alcatel announced the 7770 Optical Broadband Exchange (OBX), a respin of its 7770 Routing Core Platform that was an ambitious attempt at terabit scale first announced in late 2000 and shipped in mid-2001. Carriers, however, requested Alcatel start over with a smaller footprint that would fit in their equipment racks.

Alcatel has now scaled down the 7770 into a half-rack system. The OBX features 100G bit/sec of line capacity and a 320G bit/sec switching fabric per half-rack shelf.

Alcatel says the half-rack design makes the router more versatile, letting it support smaller core and edge applications in addition to large core requirements.

Alcatel's OBX retains the 7770's distributed switching and forwarding architecture, and cards from the Routing Core Platform are forward-compatible with the OBX, company officials say. The system includes its Alcatel Carrier Environment Internet System (ACEIS) fault-tolerant routing technique for 99.999% reliability in one system.

Alcatel says ACEIS eliminates the need to deploy a duplicate router for redundancy.

Nine racks of OBX line cards, switching and control shelves result in 1.9 terabit/ sec of line capacity and greater than 5 terabit/sec of switching, Alcatel says.

Analysts say Alcatel's re-entry into the core router market could prove fruitful.

"They have a legitimate chance at making a dent" in the market, says Mark Bieberich, an analyst with The Yankee Group. "They've done a couple of things with this product that differentiate it from the core routers that are in the market today. They've engineered it for a longer lifespan. Instead of your typical five- to seven-year cycle, it doubles that. Second, their reliability technology is very sophisticated and arguably the best reliability technology in the marketplace today. Alcatel has the staying power to lock-in that No. 3 spot [behind Cisco and Juniper Networks, and now occupied by Avici Systems] in 18 months or so."

Meanwhile, Chiaro offered a preliminary glimpse into its Enstara router, an optical crossbar switch that leverages optics to switch packets internally between line cards. Chiaro says it has 50 patents issued on Enstara's design, including a so-called Optical Phased Array (OPA) technique that uses scores of gallium arsenide optical waveguides in parallel to refract light, under electrical stimulation, from a single ingress fiber to multiple egress fibers.

OPA uses interference patterns to bend light to desired destinations, Chiaro says, and can achieve switching speeds of 30 nanosec. A 64x64 Enstara switch with 128 connectors is about the size of a briefcase, company officials say.

Enstara is capable of supporting "hundreds" of 10G bit/sec interfaces in its initial release, Chiaro officials say. It is shipping and is deployed now at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology next-generation grid network, OptIPuter.

Chiaro's router also will feature 99.999% reliability without a redundant router, officials say, through a technique called Stateful Assured Routing (STAR). Like Alcatel with ACEIS, Chiaro is tight-lipped about how STAR works, but it is designed to provide nondisruptive routing protocol switchover in the event protocol resets and route convergence times cause outages.

Chiaro says it does this by maintaining TCP state and sessions during resynchronization. Failover is undetectable by a Chiaro routing peer, they say, and packet forwarding is uninterrupted.

Chiaro promised to unveil more product details, along with another customer deployment, early next year.

Enstara and OBX will be the latest attempts to chip away at a market barrier erected by Cisco and Juniper in which Avici has made less than a 3% dent. A handful of others - such as Hyperchip, Procket Networks, Caspian Networks and Charlotte's Web - also are trying to break in.

Avici, citing analyst figures, says the market for core routers will grow from $1.3 billion this year to $2.1 billion in 2005.

Meanwhile, analysts say carriers have halved their capital expenditures from 2000 levels, making sales to a customer that typically took 12 to 18 months to fill out a purchase order even more languid.

But unlike Alcatel, which has a strong and lengthy heritage in building carrier-class telephony equipment, Chiaro is an unproven start-up in a market that is currently brutal to longtime players, let alone newcomers.

"It's a very unique approach to building a switch fabric," Yankee Group's Bieberich says of Chiaro's OPA.

"But beyond that, whether or not it's going to gain traction in the marketplace remains to be seen. Their customer base is going to want them to prove that they're going to be in this market for at least three years. That's by far Chiaro's biggest challenge," he adds.

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