Packet Design unveils Layer 3 switch

Former Cisco Systems Chief Technology Officer Judy Estrin's startup, Packet Design, Monday introduced a network appliance that provides network management functionality at the network layer, commonly referred to as Layer 3.

Dubbed Route Explorer, Packet Design's appliance enables enterprises and service providers to see the actual routing paths that their routers are using to move IP (Internet Protocol) traffic. Viewing traffic passively, the device "listens" to the routing control plane of routers.

Traditional network management tools identify only problems with individual devices or inter-device links on an "up" or "down" basis. This is accomplished by monitoring the data link layer that forwards traffic and is referred to as Layer 2.

The Route Explorer appliance contains what Packet Design calls a "route recorder." The route recorder is the mechanism that intercepts and records the communication between the backplanes of any two routers. Typical routers are composed of a forwarding engine and a routing engine. The routing engine is ostensibly the backplane.

Routing backplanes typically use OSPF (Open Shortest Path First), IS-IS (Intermediate System-to-Intermediate System), and BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) protocols to communicate between any two routers.

Estrin explains that routers periodically talk to each other to ensure their availability and status. When routers are down, a change is made and traffic is rerouted around the down node. This information is recorded by Route Explorer and is available immediately to network operators, said Estrin.

"We have lots of control plane understanding," said Estrin, referring to her team of engineers. "Link layer tools monitor links, but network operators want to know when their routes fail. A router can fail, but not the links."

Estrin envisions network operators using Route Explorer to get real-time router performance information as well as a planning tool for networks and future networks.

"I don't know what the market for a device like this is yet, but I'm excited," said Mark Seery, an analyst at RHK. "I do believe these types of device to be valuable."

The value of Route Explorer, explains Estrin, is that network operators are yearning to know more than just simply "up" or "down" status. She explained that the tool provides rich information on the actual routes and can help enterprises run a more efficient network by identifying the cause of bottlenecks and jitter, and can help ISPs meet service-level agreements and re-engineer their network in order to improve performance.

Within the appliance is an open-source mySQL database running on a Linux operating system. Standard with 20GB of disk space, Route Explorer records as many as 4 months of commands issued over OSPF and IS-IS protocols. Estrin says future releases of the product will also listen to BGP.

In March 2001, Estrin's company Packet Design spun-off Vernier Networks, a developer of 802.11 wireless systems. This was the first, and to date, only company Packet Design has spun off. Estrin hints that other technologies are forthcoming, but declined to provide any additional information.

Due to the current economic conditions, Estrin and team decided not to spin out a company to support Route Explorer. Instead, Packet Design created a wholly owned subsidiary -- Packet Design CNS -- composed of sales and marketing people who will attempt to garner customers for the new product.

The product is undergoing lab trials today and will move to beta in June. Packet design says the product is currently in lab trials with an ISP (Internet service provider) and will soon be with three other potential customers, including a university and two enterprises.

Estrin expects the product to be generally available by July and will cost approximately US$25,000. In most cases only one box is required per network.

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