Optical Networks: At Your Service

FRAMINGHAM (04/10/2000) - Gigabit Ethernet and the increasing use of dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM) have increased bandwidth in high-speed corporate networks and long-distance telephone routes. What has been overlooked is the piece that lies between the corporate net and the Internet backbone - the metropolitan-area network (MAN).

Optical networks have the potential to allow phone companies to bridge this MAN-hole. A number of vendors are developing optical technologies that address the MAN market. Ciena Corp. and Sycamore Networks Inc. now offer metropolitan optical provisioning products. More than a dozen startups, including White Rock Networks (a Mayfield investment), Alidian Networks, Optical Networks and Kestrel Solutions,are also developing products in this arena.

While the big telecom providers will eventually deploy these MAN technologies, a new breed of communications service providers will be first to address the MAN upgrade markets by providing cheap and dynamically configurable bandwidth.

For example, Yipes of San Francisco offers a MAN regional area IP service for connecting LANs between business locations at speeds up to 1G bit/sec.

Customers can select speeds from 1M bit/sec to 1G bit/sec, and LAN connection speeds can be increased on demand. Other net metropolitan optical service providers are Cogent Communications and Millennium Optics.

While these metropolitan service providers bridge the gap between optical Internet backbones and the basements of office buildings, flexible, high-speed connectivity to businesses inside these buildings is being addressed by yet another class of start-up service provider. These firms are rewiring high-rise office buildings with high-speed fiber optics thanks to new deregulation that enables competition to the regional Bell operating companies within these buildings. Several such "riser" companies sprung up in 1999, including Allied Riser, Cypress, Broadband Office and E-Link (another Mayfield investment).

One of the beauties of flexible DWDM architectures is the bandwidth can be tailored to fit customers' needs. If, for example, you need more bandwidth on Tuesdays because that's the day you conduct extensive interoffice videoconferencing, you can pay extra on that day for more bandwidth. This kind of dynamic service is just beginning to be delivered.

In many cases, today's cheap, flexible optical service offerings may only be appropriate for corporate Internet access because they lack the restoration mechanism inherent in more expensive SONET ring architectures. An overabundance of capacity in metropolitan optical schemes should ensure adequate quality of service, while new virtual private network advances will enable businesses to shift from expensive dedicated private lines to economical DWDM-enabled Internet access. But for many mission-critical applications, the cost advantage is not enough to justify the network protection risk.

As the focus shifts back to how to connect corporations to the Net backbone, it's important to keep abreast of optical network developments. While the new service providers may not be familiar names yet, the services they offer will allow you to not only get greater bandwidth outside your corporate networks but also gain greater control over that bandwidth.

Brooks is a general partner with Mayfield Fund, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif. He can be reached at tbrooks@mayfield.com.

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