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Modular telecom designs get a push

Intel, HP and other network equipment movers and shakers want the industry to adopt the same basic ingredients. Are modularity and its cost-cutting side effects becoming mod?

ATLANTA--Chipmaker Intel and equipment makers Hewlett-Packard and Alcatel have come here to offer a solution to the telephone industry financial woes: a notion called modularity.

The idea, to be highlighted Tuesday at the Supercomm 2003 trade show, is simple: Manufacturers of equipment for telecoms agree on the same basic building blocks for the switches, routers and other equipment they make, then add their own improvements from there.

Along with the designs from those three tech heavyweights, Supercomm will play host to a range of other companies introducing products based on those designs. Nokia, Avici Systems, Samsung, U.S. Robotics and even Microsoft, a relative newcomer to telecommunications, are expected to unveil such products on Tuesday.

Intel product manager Anthony Ambrose estimates that by using the same basic ingredients, equipment makers and telephone service providers will spend 20 percent less on building their gear because they won't have to develop every piece in-house. The savings can be passed on to the telephone company or to business customers.

That's far from the case right now. Although the final products might look the same on the outside, nearly all the basic elements of telephone network equipment differ dramatically, from the size of the shelves that store circuit boards to the type of screws that keep the metal cabinets of a telephone switch together.

When the economy was flourishing, simultaneously with the exploding use of cell phones and the growth of the Internet, it wasn't hard for companies to justify expensive research and development to develop network gear from the ground up. But the robust economy is no more. Instead, the norm has been draconian cutbacks in spending, as much as 20 percent, by telephone carriers and large corporations. Modularity is gaining momentum, Ambrose said, because paring down costs is now the buzzword for the industry.

"We're past the 'Oh my God, times are tough' stage," he said. "We're now at 'You can't hurt me any more than I've been hurt.'"

Intel, HP and Alcatel have been pushing modularity for at least two years. Now the three companies have begun to put products on the market based on their idea. On Tuesday, they unveiled the basic building blocks they want the rest of the telephone network equipment industry to begin using.

Announced at the Supercomm 2003, the designs call for a mix of Intel processors plus the standard Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture (

Another standard, dictating such things as the number of shelves and size of cabinets, all collected in the Rack Mount Servers standard, is also part of the Intel, HP and Altcatel push, Ambrose said.

HP plans to publish designs for this new type of server based on the modular concept, which it is calling the cc33110, in the second half of the year. Intel itself has released another set of designs for its TIGPR2U carrier-grade server, which uses the company's Xeon processor operating at 2.4GHz.

Ambrose expects it'll take months before the concept goes from a few stray pieces of equipment to full-blown industry acceptance. "We don't expect whole world to convert in six months," he said. "People are adopting the elements wherever they can right now. Some have made decisions now, but it'll take two years to implement."