Meshing networks with Boca's software

Start-up Boca Photonics last week emerged from stealth mode, declaring it’s developing software that sets up and maintains links in optical mesh networks. In doing so, Boca has become one of the first optical start-ups to take aim at a key carrier obstacle. But the start-up's peculiar approach raises as many questions as it proposes to answer.

Here's the problem Boca aims to solve: Today's optical networks are largely based on SONET rings, which set up an alternate route for each failed optical link. Unfortunately, SONET rings are cumbersome and costly to install on a large scale.

Mesh networks, which are generally based on more cutting-edge dense wavelength division multiplexing technology, are much more practical. But there hasn't been an easy way to design mesh networks with the carrier-class fault tolerance ensured on SONET nets.

Enter Boca, which says it has found a solution to the problem. Boca's nascent product, ServicePlex, includes a trio of applications: one that designs optical mesh networks for carriers, another that configures them by interacting with multivendor devices, and a third that monitors the live network and ensures all links stay lit.

The "secret sauce" is a proprietary protocol that is able to represent (and therefore manage) wavelengths in the long-haul portion of an optical mesh net.

The start-up, which gets its name from its home base in Boca Raton, Fla., hopes to release ServicePlex during the third quarter of 2001 in the form of a stand-alone hardware and software unit for sale to carriers, as well as a subsystem that can be embedded in other vendors' gear.

Analysts say Boca's fixed on a key problem.

"Rerouting and provisioning are going to be crucial in 2001 and 2002," says Christopher Nicoll, director at Current Analysis. "Once a fiber starts carrying over 100 channels, it's impossible to do anything manually. The focus must be on intelligence and automation."

But Boca Photonics' proposed product raises many questions. For one thing, Boca will have to license its product to work with many different hardware vendors' equipment before it will be effective.

There also are questions surrounding the architecture of ServicePlex. The initial version, for instance, lacks a key capability called autodiscovery, a mechanism whereby a provisioning or management system automatically identifies and obtains information from devices in a network, using signaling and interactive protocols.

Not having autodiscovery could be a big gap for ServicePlex.

"A strong multivendor autodiscovery capability is a fundamental component for provisioning and automatic restoration," says Rob Rich, executive vice president at The Yankee Group. Not briefed on Boca's product, he says he's not clear how the product will function without it.

"Networks grow organically," says Scott Clavenna, president of PointEast Research and director of research at Light Reading. "Every switch needs to keep current as changes are made." He notes that in proprietary configuration and provisioning products, such as SILVX from Sycamore Networks, regular autodiscovery checks ensure all switches are up to datee about the network.

Another issue the Boca offering raises is how its gear will work with other signaling techniques. There already are a number of efforts under way to create signaling for provisioning and restoral in multivendor optical nets. These include the generalized Multi-protocol Label Switching effort being tackled by the Internet Engineering Task Force, as well as the work of the Optical Domain Service Interconnect Coalition and the Optical Internetworking Forum.

For its part, Boca says it will be able to work with these protocols, which primarily function at the network edge, enabling routers to direct changes to optical switches -- the core domain Boca is seeking to manage. "We'd work with these protocols to reserve and restore links in the optical core," says Boca CEO Michael McLaughlin, who is a former vice president of the North American optical networks division at Siemens AG.

In addition to McLaughlin, the founding management team includes CTO Jose H. Sabat, formerly with Siemens; Vice President of Product Management Thomas E. Hall, who held similar posts at Hitachi and Nortel Networks; and Vice President of Product Development Xiangbo Feng, who also worked at Hitachi. The company has a total of about 12 employees, who are almost all engineers.

Boca has received $3 million in financing from Alliance Technology Ventures and VantagePoint Venture Partners.

This story, "Meshing networks with Boca's software " was originally published by Network World.

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