Alcatel pumps IP uptime for carriers

Alcatel’s latest carrier-class router may well improve IP network reliability, but one industry analyst questions the company’s prospects, wondering if the vendor unveiled the product at the wrong time.

Alcatel, the Paris-based network gear maker, in November unveiled the 7770 Optical Broadband Exchange (OBX), the first IP/MPLS core router to provide carriers with “five nines” (99.999 per cent) network uptime, the company claims.

Reliability – or lack thereof – is the Achilles’ heel of IP, said Vinay Rathore, the Reston, Va.-based director, strategic marketing of Alcatel’s broadband networking division.

“It’s one of the biggest reasons you haven’t seen value-added services picked up,” he said, noting that enterprises eschew IP-VPNs and voice over IP. “Customers just don’t trust IP networks very much.”

He explained that corporate clients do not tolerate Internet-style quality of service (QoS) when dealing with critical voice and data connectivity.

Rathore said carriers must employ reliable network substructures if they’re ever to entice big business clients into IP services. To that end, Alcatel’s OBX offers the control and scalability required for solid-state service, he said.

For example, whereas other box builders encourage carriers to buy two routers for redundancy, Alcatel built protective measures into the OBX so service providers need not double up on purchases, Rathore said.

Let’s say a failure at a router’s control plane requires a restart, he posited. Normally, software that connects a pair of routers will port users from one to the other. Still, the disruption could leave some users in a disconnected limbo, with their voice or data streams stranded between departure and destination, he explained.

The OBX employs a second control plane, a kind of safety net inside the box that precludes carriers from requiring two routers. In case of control-plane failure, the adjunct path in Alcatel’s device picks up mid-stream users “almost instantaneously,” Rathore said, adding the OBX’s own software ensures that whatever upset the primary control plane (perhaps a bad packet or peer) does not affect the second.

Rathore said the device takes a long view of service providers’ needs, scaling from 100Gbps to 1.9Tbps. Built on a multi-chassis platform, the OBX supports incremental expansion.

“Carriers expect networks to stay around for a long time – five, 10 or 15 years,” Rathore said. “This gives them an awful lot of time to recover their costs.”

Roberta Fox, president of the market research firm Fox Group Consulting in Markham, Ont., agreed that reliability and scalability are important aspects of IP networking. But she pointed out another facet, just as important, that could preclude Alcatel’s success with the OBX.

“[Carriers’] capital budgets are just hammered,” she said, explaining that service providers are wary of new equipment that can be expensive to install now that money is tight.

Is Alcatel’s timing all wrong? Mark Bieberich didn’t seem to think so. A senior analyst with The Yankee Group in Boston, he said the OBX is sufficiently feature-rich to interest Tier-1 carriers. He said the OBX’s multi-chassis platform is the right fit, as service providers disdain one-size-fits-all systems. As well, he suggested that Alcatel’s expertise in the voice arena would serve the company well when it comes to IP QoS issues.

But are carriers buying IP-minded routers these days?

“Not in droves, that’s for sure,” Bieberich said. “To a large extent, IP network cores are over-provisioned. However, we still see IP traffic growing at an annual rate of 75 to 100 per cent a year….If you look at IP service revenues, they’re not growing nearly as fast.

“What that says is carriers need to start making money on the traffic that they have to accommodate. In order to gain any profitability, they have to reduce their costs. That makes reliability an absolute necessity.”

Rod Kachulak, network technology and architecture manager with MTS, Manitoba’s incumbent carrier headquartered in Winnipeg, warned against over-simplification.

“Improved reliability in all layers is key to improving service; [but] a network is not one box,” he said, noting that MTS has scheduled a briefing with Alcatel to consider the new router’s technology. “It is the goal of any service provider to knit devices, facilities, management and operations into a service that meets customer needs.”

The OBX starts at US$160,000. For more information, see Alcatel’s Web site