SnowShore unveils first media server

Start-up SnowShore Networks Inc., a company targeting the nascent media server market, Monday unveiled its first product which is designed to help enable emerging IP services, such as Web conferencing and voice portals.

Media servers supply the IP processing power to support complex voice-data applications, such as salespeople accessing price lists using voice prompts and having their e-mails read to them. Rather than the alternative of incorporating this processing muscle in each access device or application server, one media server can support multiple types of access devices and application servers, thereby keeping down the overall cost of network gear.

“A lot of people put media servers in these gateways, but you want to centralize because it’s cheaper,” Probe Research vice-president Hilary Mine says.

SnowShore’s N20 media server can support 20,000 bi-directional IP sessions and process IP packets as small as 128 bytes at gigabit speeds and it does these by using three types of processing cards in an arrangement it calls WireSpeedMedia.

The 14-slot N20 chassis can house IP processing cards based on network processors, media-conversion cards based on digital signal processors, and application cards based on Reduced Instruction Set Computing processors. The total processing capacity of an N20 chassis is 25G bit/sec.

Depending on the services supported by each media server, they will require different amounts of each kind of processing. Having three types of cards makes the boxes flexible enough to support groupings of specific services efficiently, SnowShore president, CEO and co-founder Joel Hughes says.

The N20 may help enable services such as simultaneous voice conferencing and document sharing, says Jim Kettle, vice-president of network strategy for service provider Z-Tel. Z-Tel has tested SnowShore’s technology in its labs, and Kettle says it looks promising for use in Z-Tel’s network.

“Z-Tel is looking for a platform that keeps a next-generation network in mind, but still operates with [the traditional phone network],” Kettle says. Z-Tel has already written trial service software to augment the N20, he says.

SnowShore competes with other media server start-ups such as Convedia Corp., IP Unity Inc. and ThinkEngine Networks Inc. Hughes says he regards Nortel Networks Corp. and Lucent Technologies Inc., makers of traditional networking gear, as potential partners. They will want media servers to link their disparate access technologies and to support new services, he says.

SnowShore is funded by US$35.6 million in venture money from Charles River Ventures, Matrix Partners, St. Paul Venture Capital and others. The company has 75 employees and was founded in May 2000. Before founding SnowShore, Hughes and marketing vice-president David Penny worked at Natural MicroSystems, a company that makes IP telephony components.

In addition to building its media server, SnowShore is lining up partnerships with companies that make other network devices that supply applications the N20 will process. This cooperation will result in better interoperability, says Hughes.

Its initial partners are soft switch makers Sonus and Sylantro, provisioning software maker Iperia Inc., and application server maker Dynamicsoft Inc. SnowShore says it will seek more alliances over time.

It is important for media server makers to ally with companies that write service application software to insure interoperability, says Probe Research’s Mine. Hughes says it is just as important for media servers to support IP, which makes it possible for application developers to write software for a broad range of media server platforms.

It also insures a larger pool of software writers, Hughes says. More programmers can write IP applications than can write applications involving telco-specific protocols, such as Signaling System 7, he says. The more people capable of writing new applications, the more new services will be created, he says.

Probe projects that consumers and small offices will buy $2.4 billion in IP-based voice and enhanced services by 2006.

SnowShore realizes that to support these new services, the N20 will have to be able to communicate with a range of other devices, from media gateways to application servers to database servers. To talk to these devices, the N20 initially supports Session Initiation Protocol, media gateway control protocol, HTTP and others. Later, N20 will also support FTP, CIFS, IMAP, SMTP and RTSP.

N20 connects to these other devices via Gigabit Ethernet ports. Later, the box will support 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet as well as ATM, Hughes says.

The N20 beta versions ship in the first quarter of next year and will be generally available at mid-year, Hughes says.

Hughes says he thinks service providers will start testing media gateways in their networks next year, but that services based on these devices won’t emerge until the year after. Developing software rapidly to support new services will take another year after that, he says.