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Life after Verizon sees BBN returning to its roots

May 24, 20047 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsSecurity

Newly independent after being sold off earlier this year, BBN is ready to break its silence. Elmer recently updated Network World Executive News Editor Bob Brown on the 56-year-old company’s plans.

If you thought Internet and e-mail pioneer BBN had disappeared some years ago, you wouldn’t be alone, acknowledges Tad Elmer, the company’s president and CEO. Never a huge self-promoter, the consistently profitable research-and-development outfit went into big-time quiet mode when it became part of Verizon in 2000 by way of a merger involving then-parent GTE. Newly independent after being sold off earlier this year, BBN is ready to break its silence. Elmer recently updated Network World Executive News Editor Bob Brown on the 56-year-old company’s plans.

How will life after Verizon be different?

Verizon was a good place to be. You certainly knew your paycheck wasn’t going to bounce. But there was a significant difference in culture. They are more of a user of R&D than a pusher of it. So one big plus for us is that we can be true to our nature again.

One constraint in being part of a telecom company is that there are a lot of funny rules and regulations, including that the RBOCs are not allowed to own more than a certain percent of equipment makers. And for us to do communications work, our best chance is usually to license technology to people who make equipment to help them differentiate their products or get the products to do something they wouldn’t normally do. Verizon was justifiably very conservative about how they approached those things. So we should have more flexibility now about doing deals. It also makes it a little easier if we want to go talk to the other RBOCs.

How much did Verizon drive your R&D direction?

We were operating not entirely independently, but we did the vast majority of our work for external clients. But we did some work for Verizon and are continuing to do it. We spent a lot of time trying to get our technology to help them in their call centers. We also did a security audit for them and looked at how to minimize crosstalk on DSL.

BBN is known largely for its government work. Should we expect to see you doing more in the commercial market?

We hope so . . . carefully and profitably. We go between having 15% and 20% of our work from commercial customers, and we’re hoping to expand on that, though we are very focused on keeping existing customers happy. We’re still doing the same kind of innovative work we’ve always done, though I can’t guarantee any of the things we’re working on now will change the world like e-mail and packet switching have. Check back in 20 years and we’ll see. [In light of being sold off from Verizon to BBN’s management team and investment firms Accel Partners and General Catalyst Partners], the possibility of us spinning out new companies is on the table, though this is not something we’re strongly emphasizing.

How would you describe the overall state of basic R&D?

We have seen interesting work in some areas, like speech and language processing. You saw this trend where government was pushing development of it. The technology got better to a certain point and there were some IPOs and a fair amount of capital put into it. Then it started getting a little bit better and then it stopped getting better, and the reason why is that in the commercial world you have to make a profit or at least be cash-flow positive.

It’s hard to keep pushing research. The start-ups generally don’t push research hard. We traditionally had huge companies like AT&T with Bell Labs and Xerox Parc or IBM Watson Research Labs. These were big places that were given enough funding to really push forward. But there’s such an incredible emphasis on making money and reducing costs now that it seems in speech and networking and other places you don’t see zillions of dollars on basic research. If you can tweak things and make them a little better to succeed in the market and get a result quickly, then that tends to happen.

More of the onus has gone back to the federal government to push on research. And to go back to the speech and language processing, we’ve seen that. The government has anted up more money for this and we’ve seen the lion’s share of that.

What projects is BBN working on that might interest network executives?

One area we’re actively working in is a way of tracking back a packet after it arrives at its destination [formerly referred to by the suspicion-arousing name of Source Path Isolation Engine, or SPIE]. We look at which routers the packets touched to figure out where they came into your network. This could be for big companies and government agencies that own their own networks. It was developed originally for DARPA, and we’re pursuing other government applications now. The key is being able to condense this astronomical flow of data through routers into a small enough thing that you can actually fit a buffer in memory of the last five minutes or so. It uses very clever hash coding.

We also have patents in the works for automated ways to determine when worms or viruses become active in your network. They operate on fairly general principles and use the same hashing technologies that the IP traceback does.

What’s your take on network security? Are things going to get much worse before they get better?

There are clever people who like to poke holes in things, and one of the things that makes it easy for them is that there is so much of one platform. It is almost irresistible to them worldwide to go and mess with it. There’s a lot of religious discussion internally about whether one operating system is intrinsically more secure than others, but it’s hard to separate out whether one is more secure or not from the fact that one is just more prevalent and thus attracts more attacks. We’re great believers in diversity of computation. We use very general protocols and stay away from single-vendor solutions. People here have Microsoft, BSD, Mac and Linux boxes, and they co-exist. That gives you much greater intrinsic robustness against attack than if you have a monoclonal solution.

BBN’s contributions to packet switching and e-mail are well known. What’s next for BBN and the ‘Net?

We still participate in the IETF and write RFCs fairly regularly. But the Internet is so huge now that we don’t have the central position that we used to, and no one ever will again. We’re still pushing technology forward, but it tends to be more for special things like wireless and security. There’s also the semantic Web, which is not the Internet per se but it’s probably the next wave of major applications atop the World Wide Web. We’re very active in that and have written a lot of what have become key protocols in that area. In the next few years that will become a very powerful way of communicating. You’ll have agents buzzing around doing things instead of everything being designed for humans to look at, which is really a limiting thing.