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Cisco bridging data, voice divide

Facing increasing competitive pressures, the data communications leader quietly discloses details of forthcoming technology expected to compete in an arena dominated by voice equipment giants.

    Facing increasing competitive pressures, data communications leader Cisco Systems quietly disclosed details yesterday about a forthcoming product expected to compete in an arena dominated by voice equipment giants such as Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks.

    Cisco hopes technology it acquired as part of a $160 million deal for LightSpeed International announced in December of 1997 will help it bridge the divide between data and voice networks and eventually replace more expensive equipment provided by traditional telco equipment providers.

    Disclosure of the technology follows Lucent's $20 billion purchase of Cisco competitor Ascend Communications last week--a move that ups the ante in the race to provide Internet-based equipment for phone networks.

    The set of software Cisco will roll out within the next few months will provide third-party developers a so-called platform upon which they can build complex voice-based services, such as a call-forwarding offering. The Unix-based software, to be called a virtual switch controller, will run on top of new machines recently announced by systems player Sun Microsystems.

    The software will be based on current or emerging standards for routing voice and data traffic, according to the company, a different approach from some providers of circuit-based voice equipment. Traditionally, phone companies have been forced to purchase software made specifically for the telco hardware provided by the that same equipment provider.

    "By opening up that infrastructure, it creates for us a playing field in which Cisco can be successful," said Lev Volftsun, a cofounder of LightSpeed and current general manager and vice president for Cisco's telephony/Internet service unit.

    But Cisco is facing the challenge of attempting to convince carriers used to maximum uptime to rely on a new set of technologies relatively unproven in production networks compared with older, more complex alternatives that have been in operation for years.

    Cisco plans to make the specifications included in its forthcoming product available to third-party developers. The combined hardware and software package is expected to be much cheaper than alternatives offered by telco equipment providers such as Lucent or Nortel, according to the company.

    "In order for them to compete in an open world, they'll have to have something like this," said Volftsun.

    Cisco executives characterized the technology as a "consolidated gateway" that can interoperate with a variety of equipment installed in phone layouts and work with networks based on the Internet protocol (IP) and high-speed alternative asynchronous transfer mode (ATM). Cisco said the technology is currently in tests among telecommunications companies in Europe and is in the labs of others in the United States.

    Cisco hopes the technology can initially bridge the voice world and its current haven, the Internet, then eventually replace older voice equipment. The LightSpeed software is another tool in Cisco's bid to speed construction of voice networks based on its own equipment--a high stakes strategy targeted at a potentially lucrative market.

    "This is the gear that's going to help speed deployment of that," said a Cisco spokesman.

    The technology includes an emerging standard for voice-over-IP announced last November. Cisco has latched on to the effort, which also includes the suport of Bellcore and emerging carrier Level 3 Communications.

    Cisco executives claimed the combined hardware and software package is distinct from the company's voice-related work with close associate Hewlett-Packard, which they said was focused on voice services and overall management of a network.