Teaching old routers new tricks

Juniper and Tellabs spruce up their old gear to address the emerging multiservice edge routing market--but will the strategy work?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read
Some networking equipment companies are sprucing up their existing products to go after a hot and growing market known as the multiservice edge, but skeptics question whether or not the products are up to the task.

Earlier this month, Juniper Networks and Tellabs each announced that they added "multiservice" functionality to their existing routers, which were originally designed to shuttle traffic across the core of a telecom network. These updated routers can be used at the edge of the network to help carriers transition from circuit-based networks to IP (Internet Protocol) networks.

While retrofitting existing products to attack a fast-growing market may make sense from a business perspective, it's not an easy engineering task, analysts said.


What's new:
Juniper and Tellabs are updating their old gear to move into the emerging multiservice edge routing market.

Bottom line:
While revamping existing products to take aim at a fast-growing market may make sense from a business perspective, it may not be an easy engineering task.

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"One could easily make the case that the design for a core router won't work well even if it's repurposed for the edge," said David Passmore, an analyst with the Burton Group. "The most important thing to focus on in the core is packet-forwarding, and at the edge you really need granular packet processing."

Multservice edge products are what make digital convergence in the network happen. These devices aggregate customer traffic, including Frame Relay, ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), Ethernet and leased line, and dump it onto a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) backbone. MPLS allows carriers to more efficiently use their network resources, while still offering customers private and secure connections. The market for multservice edge devices is expected to be huge, around $3.3 billion by 2006, according to Infonetics Research. By contrast, the core router market is expected to be worth about $2.7 billion by 2006.

The strong revenue potential may explain why so many companies are going after this market. While the core router market is dominated by two players--Cisco Systems and Juniper--the multiservice edge router market has dozens of competitors, including Alcatel, Cisco, Juniper, Laurel Networks, Nortel Networks, Redback Networks and Tellabs.

Last Tuesday, Juniper announced the M320 router, which uses the same chipsets, hardware design and software operating system found in the company's flagship M-series core routers. Juniper, which has been shipping routers since the late 1990s, has already established itself in the core router market. The company originally designed its first product, the M40, to compete with Cisco's core router. Now the company is marketing the entire line of M-series routers as edge routers and selling its newer T-series routers for the core.

Tellabs, a maker of traditional circuit-switched gear, last week announced enhancements to the 8800 router, which is based on technology it acquired from San Jose, Calif.-based start-up Vivace Networks. Like the Juniper M-series, the 8800 was originally designed for the core of a service provider's network. Tellabs now has added support for Ethernet, IP virtual private networks (VPNs), and virtual private LAN (local area network) services to the 8800 product line.

Cisco, which dominates the core router market with more than 70 percent of the market, has taken a similar strategy with its older GSR routers. After the company replaced the original GSR 12000 with bigger, faster core routers, like the 12400 and 12800, it added new software features and interfaces last year to make the GSR 12000 an edge router.

Steve Vogelsang, co-founder of Laurel Networks, a start-up that specializes in multiservice edge routing, said that Juniper and Tellabs had no other choice but to reconfigure core routers for the edge. Juniper, which has a large installed base of customers, couldn't risk alienating customers by introducing a brand-new technology, he said. And it would take Tellabs too long to develop a new multiservice edge product from scratch. Carriers, such as SBC Communications and AT&T, have already solicited proposals from companies making these multiservice products.

"Every major carrier out there is looking at these devices," Vogelsang said. "I think Juniper and Tellabs realized that they had to offer something. I'm sure they feared that without a product marketed specifically for the multiservice edge, they'd be shut out of the sales process."

Hurdles ahead
Nevertheless, converting older core routers for the edge poses substantial challenges.

Core routers came into vogue in the late 1990s. The task for vendors was to build the biggest, fastest router they could. The goal was to eliminate potential traffic jams on the Internet and bulk up capacity for future growth.

By 2000, the telecommunications industry started to sober up, and carriers realized that there was a glut of capacity in their core networks. They pulled back their investments and started focusing on the edge of their networks, where they saw the potential to offer new revenue-generating services. The edge of the telecommunication network has increasingly become important over the last year as carriers begin converging disparate data and voice networks onto a single network using MPLS.

But requirements for the multiservice edge are different from those needed in the core. For example, core routers are designed to quickly shuttle packets from one place in the network to another. By contrast, multiservice edge routers require much more intelligence. They must be able to take in different kinds of traffic like ATM or Frame Relay and transport that traffic over an MPLS infrastructure without losing any of the quality of service or reliability characteristics found in its native form. Multiservice boxes also need to be able to handle large traffic flows. This means boxes need switching capacity to handle up to 400 gigabits worth of throughput.

Although there is a gap between the needs of the core and multiservice edge, some analysts said that newly developed software can provide an acceptable bridge.

Kevin Mitchell, an analyst at Infonetics Research, said he sees value in Juniper's newly announced software toolkit, called J-FASE, which enables the M-series routers to take in ATM and Frame Relay traffic and emulate that over an MPLS network.

"Clearly Juniper, and all the vendors in this market, still have a long way to go in terms of satisfying every requirement," Mitchell said. "But I think Juniper is off to a good start with the software toolkit."

Juniper argues that the introduction of the new M320 multiservice edge router is not just a marketing ploy. Mike Capuano, senior product marketing manager for Juniper, said the company has been working on incorporating more multiservice features into the M-series routers for the past few years, particularly through new software development. He also said that the programmable chipsets, the Internet Processor II, introduced into the product line back in 1999, have played a significant role in converting the core devices to edge routers.

"We've been enhancing this product all along," he said. "The good news is that we can leverage the stability of the original platform. And because we are using flexible chipsets, we can add in new features."