Tipping Point hopes to stir up carrier networks

Tipping Point Technologies has developed an operating system for network processors that it says will make it possible to easily and cheaply program new services into carrier networks.

To support this bold claim, the company is building a high-speed packet-processing box, based on network processors, to support two services - called Digital Vaccine and XML QoS - by the end of the year. Digital Vaccine will screen packets for viruses before they enter the metro network.

XML QoS will peer deep into packets to discover what applications XML traffic is bearing, and then impose varying levels of service quality on them according to policies chosen by end-user enterprises.

The company's founder, John McHale, hopes Tipping Point Service Operating System will spawn a new era of highly flexible, network-processor-based hardware that carriers will use pervasively as the way to support new services. The company's name reflects his high aspirations: McHale says Tipping Point comes from the title of a book by Malcolm Gladwell about how ideas gain critical mass to trigger dramatic change.

Existing IP routers are either too slow or inflexible to support the rapid programmability needed for the type of IP service creation and provisioning Tipping Point is proposing, McHale says. High-speed routers are fast because they are based on non-programmable application-specific integrated circuits - tying their function to silicon makes them more difficult to modify to support new services, McHale says.

"It is a good thing that Tipping Point has developed its operating system, building its own hardware and software and selling its own services, because it is unlikely others would quickly rise to supply these pieces," says International Data Corp. Analyst Sterling Perrin. But Tipping Point is also attempting to create a market, Perrin says, which is particularly difficult for any vendor to do in the current economic environment, let alone a start-up.

"The environment we're in right now makes it very challenging to create a new market," he says. "It would be easier for them if we weren't in the current economic state we're in right now."

To provision its services, Tipping Point will sell carriers Optical Service Processors (OSP), the name for its hardware. These boxes would sit, for example, between a service provider's optical metro network and the Internet. The device would take in and output traffic via OC-48 ports. While inside the box, the data would be converted from optical to electrical for processing.

Tipping Point will manage the OSPs and deliver services directly to service providers. These service providers will then sell antivirus, QoS and other services to enterprises.

A single OSP device will support both Digital Vaccine and XML QoS at the same time, McHale says. Other service applications could be written by Tipping Point or service providers and run on the same boxes.

Other service applications in the Tipping Point pipeline include: IP 800 Number, which would enable an enterprise to extend top-priority call center service to preferred customers doing e-business with the corporation; and NetEx, which would deliver large files within a certain guaranteed timeframe.

Service applications will be written in a proprietary language called ServiceScript that Tipping Point will teach at a school it is setting up in Austin, Texas. Java programmers will be able to master it within days, McHale says.

Tipping Point will manage these services for other carriers from its network operations center in Austin, using a homegrown service management system. The company has partnered with Oracle Corp., Portal Software Inc. and Remedy Corp. for its operations service and support system.

Tipping Point has not set pricing for its services yet, but it will be based on the number of applications sold and the number of nodes to be managed.

The company has about US$75 million in funding from private investors as well as corporations, including Qwest Communications International Inc. and Walt Disney Co., McHale says.

This is McHale's third start-up. He founded Ethernet hub maker NetWorth and sold it to Compaq Computer Corp. in 1995. He founded also DSLnetworks Inc. equipment company NetSpeed, which he sold to Cisco Systems Inc. in 1998.

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