Companies of split minds over new switching gear

Depending on which company you talk to, Calgary-based Shaw Cable’s recent purchase of Extreme Networks’ switching equipment either represents the final step in the cable company’s implementation of interactive television services or merely an intermediate and precautionary step to handle extra traffic.

With Extreme’s technology, Shaw will soon be able to offer customers the long promised video-on-demand, voice over IP, and bandwidth provisioning capabilities for applications like ERP, gushed George Prodan, Extreme’s vice-president of worldwide marketing, in an interview with Network World Canada.

However, a spokesperson at Shaw was less enthusisatic.

“They put lots of that stuff in their press release, I guess it really impresses people,” chuckled Doug McEwen, a senior director of systems engineering for Shaw. But “the primary application we’re using it for today is for cable data, once it’s been aggregated at the hub site, to backhaul it to our central offices.”

Whatever the case may be, both agreed that Shaw’s purchase of more than 70 of Extreme’s Black Diamond 6808 chassis switches, which will take over for Cisco Ethernet switches, will increase the speed of traffic from Shaw’s hub sites (similar to telco wire offices) to its cable head ends (similar to telco tandem switching offices) in more than a dozen Canadian cities west of Winnipeg, except Vancouver for the present time. Shaw is still awaiting CRTC approval of its trade of cable lines in Toronto for Rogers Cable’s lines in the West Coast city.

McEwen said the increase in Shaw’s cable modem penetration combined with the extra bandwidth customers are using made the upgrade from Cisco’s 100Mbps-capable switches to Extreme’s 1Gbps-capable switches necessary to “stay ahead of the curve.”

“This is really just an intermediate step,” McEwen added. “The next step will be to go to the 10Gbps standard once it’s available.”

Between cities, McEwen said Shaw plans to make more use of Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing technology (DWTM), which is a way of carrying multiple optical signals on a single fibre, where each optical signal would get one wavelength on the fibre. He said the company’s current ATM backbone would most likely constitute one wavelength on that network, and the remaining wavelength would be packet over SONET-based, using the IP packet over SONET standards.

Telecommunications and Internet analyst, Jordan Worth of IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, said Shaw’s use of Extreme’s switches represents one more “piece of the puzzle” in the cable company’s infrastructure evolution.

“The existing cable infrastructure has historically been dumb,” Worth suggested. “It lacks intelligence, sophisticated switching capabilities, and any real notion of interactivity.”

Worth said both Shaw and Rogers are working with 360Networks in building a national broadband fibre cable network.

“You’re going to have one cable company in this country in the next 12 to 18 months,” he speculated. Extreme’s switches “are an important enabling technology for the evolution of the cable companies into a national interactive video and entertainment service company.”