Unisphere Switches Challenge Market Leader

WITH THE PASSING of the Year 2000 crisis, Internet service providers will be returning to business as usual. Although networking is dominated by Cisco, there are a number of companies that plan to challenge the industry giant as ISPs move to the next generation of network hardware. One of those companies is Unisphere Solutions, which was formed when Siemens acquired Argon, Castle, and Red Stone in 1999. In an interview with InfoWorld Editor in Chief Michael Vizard, Marty Clague, president and CEO of Unisphere Solutions and Michael Welts, vice president of marketing, talked about how changes to the core networking infrastructure are about to broaden the number of services available from ISPs.

InfoWorld: Unisphere isn't a household name. How did the company come into existence?

Clague: We're a company that was formed in April of 1999 with funding from Siemens. The company itself was formed around the nucleus of three start-ups that were in the Massachusetts area around Boston. At the time, those companies were known as Argon, Castle, and Red Stone. In addition, the assets of Siemens in the United States, which work on IP technologies, were put into the company.

We opened the doors in April at around 250 people, and today we're around 450 people.

InfoWorld: What's the product set?

Clague: If you conceptualize the network as a core and an edge, we have a core router switch that was the Argon DNA, which today we call the CRX-64000. It's a high-density fabric, high-speed switch that will be coming out at the end of [this year]. We also have an edge router switch, which was from Red Stone. It's a very dense IP router switch -- for the edge of the network -- that can establish VPN environments very quickly. It's constructed around ASICs, which makes it fast and reliable, and very dense processors from Motorola. That product began shipping last May. And then there's a mediation device, which came from Castle. It enables the ILECs [Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers] and especially the CLECs [Competitive Local Exchange Carriers] to establish a presence without having to buy Class 5 switches.

InfoWorld: Why will ISPs care about this?

Clague: Our boxes allow them to establish points of presence at a much different cost metric than was normally available to them and at a much higher reliability than was available to them before. Unisphere is focused on something called service-ready networking. What Unisphere has done is pull together a collection of best-of-breed products. But more importantly, we've overlaid a software capability that is independent of any type of platform or infrastructure product to enable the creation and delivery of a new type of services. What we're doing is reducing the time to market for new services. An average service provider takes 18 months to get out there with a new service.

Under the new service-ready networking architecture or framework that we've introduced, these guys can deploy new services to their markets in a matter of six months time.

InfoWorld: What kind of services are we talking about?

Clague: Frankly, a lot of these [are] new services that have yet to be defined.

Right now, the ISPs are only limited by the proprietary nature of the infrastructure that is out there. It's an age-old story. Cisco says it's an end-to-end solution, but their infrastructure basically says everything has to be IOS [Internetwork Operating System], so any service that ISPs put out on the network has to be basically an IOS-based service. We're saying that our software not only works across best-of-breed boxes from us, but also boxes from Siemens, Nortel, Alcatel, Lucent, and Cisco.

InfoWorld: How is that accomplished?

Clague: We call it directory-enabled telephony. It's a layer on top of the operations of the ISP that allows them to be much more responsive by integrating services such as voice data, voice mail, e-mail, fax, and forwarding. If you can determine the service requirements, provision the service requirement using software, and still connect it to the traditional infrastructure that's there -- like billing, the phone number, and the features that you have on the voice switch -- this becomes [a] very valuable set of tools for reacting to new market needs.

InfoWorld: Why should IT people outside of ISPs care about this?

Clague: They should never have to be concerned about the infrastructure that they're receiving their services over. The real issue is that they are limited in the types of services that they receive from their ISPs because of the proprietary nature of that infrastructure.

InfoWorld: Still, you have to overcome a significant hurdle in terms of competing with Cisco. How will that happen?

Welts: I would argue that the paradigm shift is shifting right now from one that has been focused on infrastructure to one of services beyond infrastructure. I would contend that Cisco is without question the dominant company in the world in terms of IP, and there's no question that the world is moving toward IP. However, the biggest challenge for Cisco will be the kind of reliability that people have come to expect on the voice side. Siemens, our parent company, is the world's largest tele-communications company and has expertise that no one can match on the voice side. We've taken 26,000 Siemens field personnel around the world in 160 countries and have them selling convergence solutions. If you take Cisco and Nortel combined, they don't equal the division that we belong to within Siemens.

InfoWorld: With most of the traffic on the Internet coming from data, why will voice still be important?

Welts: I would suggest that while data traffic has overtaken voice traffic on the network, at the end of the day, you'll find that 90 percent of service-provider revenue comes from voice. So the biggest challenge to the Internet service provider community is to find a way to make money off of all the standard traffic that's on their network. At the end of the day, what the end user wants is one bill coming from one provider that says they have a choice of voice or data services.

Clague: The other issue is they're intermixed at the transaction level. If I'm a customer and I want to know how to put the doll's house together for my daughters, rather than get on a Web page and look for it, I'd probably like to have one-way video so they could talk to me. I think what's going to happen is that transactions will start to intermix. Some of the future of our e-commerce transactions will be a combination of voice and data. This will put pressure on the ISPs.

Unisphere Solutions Inc., in Burlington, Mass., can be reached at www.unisphere.cc.

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