Aura takes step toward SONET with FirstLight

It's every carrier's dream: a simplified network with reduced equipment and deployment costs that incorporates legacy and next-generation network access in a single package.

Aura Networks Inc.'s FirstLight architecture is an attempt to provide just that. It is designed to provide a carrier-class fault-tolerant access, switching, concentration and management architecture for both packet-switched data and circuit-switched voice.

Aura, which until now was firmly in the optical Ethernet data camp, claims the architecture specifically addresses the preferences of end-user customers to have their voice and high-speed data services delivered by a single service provider. Senior Vice President Worldwide Marketing Alan Brind says FirstLight was designed to embrace the billions of dollars of legacy SONET infrastructure that is being utilized to deliver voice services - and to give Aura a larger share of that market.

"This was a conscious move into voice because we know that SONET/SDH is going to be around for a long time," he says. "We acknowledged that in order to improve the size of our market, we had to embrace legacy time-division multiplexer (TDM), voice and SONET. It is not a move away from Ethernet, but merely a migration strategy for service providers."

Aura is the latest optical Ethernet company to acknowledge that it must also support SONET to remain viable. Atrica Inc. recently unveiled the A-8800 Ethernet switch that also supports SONET TDM (Atrica releases 100-Gig Ethernet metro core switch).

Appian Communications Inc. is looking to migrate carriers into Ethernet but also says the value proposition of SONET is too strong to be ignored.

"At the end of the day, the Ethernet vs. SONET discussion isn't relative," says Karen Barton, Appian's VP of marketing. "SONET is still the only technology that provides the quality receiver and private line that voice services require. When Appian developed its early product concepts, it was clear from providers that they didn't want to be stranded by Ethernet; they wanted a migration because they realized that Ethernet is cost-effective, packet-optimized and very pervasive as a technology."

Other vendors, like Astral Point Communications Inc., say they've stayed in the SONET camp because that's where the money is. Chris Janson, senior product manager says that incumbent local exchange carriers (ILEC) aren't looking to grow into Ethernet for the simple reason that the current deployed base of SONET works and works well.

"We're driven by the need of economic decision," says Chris Janson, senior product marketing manager. "ILECs are making money with SONET so we're giving them equipment that leverages what they've already got in place."

Support for SONET and TDM voice will be key to the appeal of FirstLight, according to Marian Stasney, senior analyst for the Yankee Group.

"They have chosen to address TDM traffic natively," she says. "I think this is really key. I thought more companies would have done this already but it shows that Aura knew what problems to address and asserted itself well into the voice market. Carriers really prefer to do voice natively. Voice over IP is not simple nor is it ubiquitous. Aura has capitalized on the fact that carriers like to use their current infrastructures that they know and understand."

As softswitches and gateways mature, Stasney predicts they will compete with Aura's technology. She says LuxN can carry T-1 voice traffic natively with products that are currently shipping. Atrica's A-2100 also offers similar services; Dynarc and Appian are two indirect competitors who offer similar services in different ways.

Aura claims FirstLight has significant TDM/packet quality-of-service management advantages because it includes the company's proprietary Stealth IP technology. Stealth IP uses bit stuffing, a method of putting bits in the space between Ethernet frames, to manage the network.

Ostensibly, Stealth IP was designed to simplify service deployment, initiate remote testing and provide elastic bandwidth management. It is SNMP-compatible and has no link latency, Aura says.

Stasney says Stealth IP's bit-stuffing is a unique way of measuring the laser diode voltage and current as well as trend analysis, but says that carriers are often leery of proprietary architectures.

"In these times, everyone is just trying to get a product out the door," she says. "Unfortunately, the standards can't keep up with the technology so Aura will have to demonstrate interoperability in order to dispel that concern."

Stasney says that if FirstLight can pass voice traffic to a PSTN switch without losing QoS, then Aura doesn't need the standard to promote the new architecture.

"They simply have to prove that they can talk to other parts of the network," she says.

Products in the FirstLight family are expected to enter beta testing in late 2001.

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