New Services Extend VPN Assurances

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - Two well-funded startups are hoping to take the virtual private network world by storm at the upcoming NetWorld+Interop Las Vegas show with a new generation of services that guarantee network performance and data delivery across multiple ISP networks.

Business users can buy managed VPN services with service-level guarantees from individual service providers such as UUNET, Cable & Wireless PLC and PSINet.

But these guarantees do not cover traffic that often traverses multiple service provider networks.

CoreExpress and SmartPipes plan to address that issue with VPN services that will support guaranteed service-level agreements (SLA) for traffic that traverses multiple ISP networks. In addition, customers will be able to monitor the network from end to end using tools that are provided by CoreExpress and SmartPipes.

Strong selling points

"Being able to see a VPN that travels many ISP networks from end to end and getting stringent SLAs are two very strong selling points," says Bob Dougherty, chief information officer at Subaru of America.

"We've looked at VPNs to link up our dealers, but most already had ISPs they were working with," he says. The car manufacturer did not want to mandate a change for its dealers, so it scrapped the idea of a companywide extranet. But the concept may soon be worth revisiting.

"Today end users are out of luck because while the majority of tier-one ISPs and carriers offer robust SLAs, those SLAs only apply to a given service provider's network," says Joanna Makris, an analyst at The Yankee Group consulting firm in Boston. That means users cannot ensure quality of service (QoS) between offices that use different network providers, she says.

While CoreExpress and SmartPipes share the same goal of guaranteed high-quality VPN services, they have considerably different methods to achieve it.

CoreExpress is in the process of buying dark fiber from a handful of network service providers around the country.

The idea is that CoreExpress will establish relationships with various ISPs, which in turn will have to meet certain performance criteria to connect to the CoreExpress network, says CEO Mike Gaddis, former chief technology officer at Savvis. The ISPs will also have to let CoreExpress peer into their backbones to monitor performance levels.

CoreExpress is deploying Juniper Networks and Cisco gear throughout its network and at 13 Internet exchange sites to support the services. Gaddis says Multi-protocol Label Switching (MPLS) support in the Jupiter and Cisco equipment will let CoreExpress transmit VPN customer traffic at guaranteed service levels. Although CoreExpress did not reveal pricing, business users can expect to pay a premium for the services.

If CoreExpress can set up VPNs that span several ISP networks, why haven't the big ISPs done this already? Well, Gaddis says now there's an incentive.

CoreExpress has devised a settlement system for its ISP partners. "There is payment for originating traffic to CoreExpress and for terminating traffic from CoreExpress," he says.

But it's also technologically challenging to link multiple ISP networks and then guarantee business users they will have top-rate performance. "What CoreExpress is promising is very lofty," says Eric Hindin, a director at The Yankee Group. "What business users see is this start-up anointing itself the keeper of the Internet backbone without a service, partner or customer."

But the company must be singing the right song, because without a single customer, CoreExpress has raised almost $600 million from venture firms such as Benchmark Ventures and Morgan Stanley.

SmartPipes, which is headed by Ray Bell, a veteran of Cisco and Oracle, is also well-funded with money coming in from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Jim Clark, founder of Silicon Graphics and Netscape. Exact investment totals have not been revealed.

Multiple protocols supported

What is known about SmartPipes is that Bell, its founder and CEO, and a team of directory experts have developed a system that can support multiple QoS protocols and also let customers configure and provision their various VPN connections.

"SmartPipes is building the most scalable, sophisticated policy management system that I've ever seen," says Dave Passmore, a research director at The Burton Group. "The system is far more sophisticated than anything the vendors are developing."

SmartPipes customers will each get a software interface that will allow them to access the SmartPipes policy management system. The system allows users to set policy rules right from their desktops concerning all users on their VPNs. The policy software puts control in the hands of the customer, Bell says.

Unlike CoreExpress, SmartPipes is not building a network or a slew of network-exchange hubs.

SmartPipes is building one network operating center in Dublin, Ohio, where it will manage its services that will include VPN, voice over IP and unified messaging, Bell says. But VPN services, which are expected to cost 15 percent to 20 percent more than most traditional services, will be rolled out first, he added.

When SmartPipes launches its company in two weeks, it is also expected to announce partnerships with service providers and hardware vendors. SmartPipes plans to announce the initial list of hardware vendors that its policy management system can support.

Potential benefits aside, at least one user says the new services could raise important authority questions.

"It sounds like a great idea, but I wonder who would have ultimate control over my network," says Dwight Gibbs, chief technical "fool" at The Motley Fool, an Alexandria, Va., a company that operates a financial information Web site. "I'm not sure if some of the big financial guys are going to want to team with one provider to manage a network that spans dozens of ISPs.

"The idea is you want to reduce the number of vendors that touch your network," Gibbs says.

CoreExpress: www.core express.net; SmartPipes: www. smartpipes.com.

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