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Unisphere looks to make a mark with network software

To meet the needs of a competitive communications marketplace, companies are looking to embrace a new type of communications software called "softswitch" technology.

Think of it as a network face-lift.

To survive in the current hyper-competitive communications market, a carrier has to keep up with the latest technology and constantly offer new, improved services. To meet these needs, companies are looking to embrace a new type of communications software, often called "softswitch" technology.

Firms like Siemens' Unisphere Solutions, Lucent Technologies and a number of upstart companies all hope to make a mark in this potentially lucrative market. The new technology allows companies such as Qwest Communications International to offer virtual Internet connections (VPN), for example, without having to fundamentally change network architecture.

Unisphere plans to release new softswitch technology for testing in the first quarter of next year. These trials are expected to pave the way for the company to sell a sophisticated combination of network hardware and software to service providers.

Separately, Lucent won a large deal with upstart Level 3 Communications earlier this year to use softswitch technology.

Unisphere is a new entrant in the high-end network equipment world, and is looking to differentiate itself in a market dominated by Lucent, Nortel Networks and Cisco Systems, among others, industry analysts have said.

Softswitch technology uses software as a network building block, allowing a programmer to write code for a new communications service regardless of the type of equipment the network is built on.

Unisphere hopes it can play a role in networks that it may not even have equipment in by offering software technology, according to the company.

As the demand for Internet-based networks that combine both voice and video grows, customers are looking for ways to better manipulate network traffic. Analysts say the development of new technologies that companies can use across a wide range of networking hardware is long overdue.

"The service providers have fantasized for years about an environment where they weren't dependent on a particular vendor," said Christine Heckart, executive vice president for industry consultants TeleChoice. "[Networking companies] are saying, in theory, 'We're going to separate the services from the hardware. In doing so, we're giving you, the service provider, a greater amount of flexibility.'"

Underscoring the opportunity, a standards group called the Softswitch Consortium recently was formed to create a common set of technologies for the market.

"This is a very serious opportunity," said Tom Jenkins, a senior consultant with TeleChoice. "Somebody somewhere is going to buy a whole lot of these things."