Sockeye updates route control as Cisco looms

Sockeye Networks Monday rolled out a new version of its route control software, moving its capabilities forward even as networking behemoth Cisco Systems eyes the fledgling market for this kind of technology, which helps companies take advantage of having more than one data communications carrier.

Route control technology uses information about congestion, network failures, quality requirements, cost and other factors to divide WAN (wide area network) traffic among two or more carriers. Usually residing on a specialized appliance and sometimes bolstered with monitoring services, it can help enterprises, hosting providers and other users save money and get the network performance they want. A growing number of enterprises are signing up for multiple WAN data services to save money and make sure they stay connected in case of a failure or service degradation, according to industry analysts.

Cisco, the dominant maker of routers, plans soon to build some route control capabilities into its IOS (Internetwork Operating System) software, a company executive said last month. That move might transform the industry, which largely has been the territory of startups, according to some analysts.

Sockeye, one of a handful of startups in this field, which also includes netVmg Inc., RouteScience Technologies Inc. and others, offers appliance-based software for choosing optimal routes, along with a service in which the company monitors the customer's network performance and feeds the system current information on the performance of networks around the world. The company Monday rolled out GlobalRoute 3.0, the latest version of its software, with new features designed to help customers view activity and get the most service for their money. The software upgrade is available now and free to existing customers of Sockeye, which charges monthly rates starting at US$5,000 per location for its appliance and service.

Sockeye's GlobalRoute 3.0 lets customers of multiple carriers feed the terms of complex carrier service contracts into the software, which then can factor in the current cost of a service when picking routes, said Brendan Hannigan, vice president of marketing and strategy at the Waltham, Massachusetts, company. A carrier contract for a high-capacity connection such as an OC-3, which can deliver 155M bps (bits per second), often is divided into multiple tiers, under which a customer is charged different prices for utilizing certain percentages of the bandwidth. As a result, putting a bit more traffic on a particular link may cut costs one day and raise costs the next, depending on how much capacity has already been used, according to Sockeye.

"It saves configuration time and makes it one less thing we have to worry about," said Josh Richards, chief technical officer at Digital West Networks Inc., a hosting and collocation service provider in San Luis Obispo, California.

Digital West, which began using Sockeye's GlobalRoute 2.0 last year and now has the new software in production use, also benefits from new kinds of information in GlobalRoute 3.0's "executive dashboard," Richards said. Among other things, the software can provide an up-to-date list of the network destinations that have been hit by the most outages or route changes. This gives Digital West more information to use when customers call with concerns about network performance. At a glance, an engineer can see that a certain network has had problems in a certain area, Richards said. Meanwhile, GlobalRoute tries to work around those failures for the best possible performance.

Route control offers useful benefits, according to Cisco's Charlie Giancarlo, senior vice president and general manager of switching, voice and carrier systems.

"We think it's a very clever set of functions ... you should expect to see it in our products before too long," Giancarlo said in an interview last month. He did not detail what features Cisco would offer, how they would be packaged, or exactly when they would be available.

As with other advanced networking features, Cisco believes route control should be integrated into the network architecture, Giancarlo said. Last December, the company unveiled a concept it calls Intelligent Information Network, a network infrastructure with high-level features such as security and QoS (quality of service) built in.

Many enterprises are ready for a Cisco offering in this area, according to Greg Howard, principal analyst at High Tech Resource Consulting Group LLC, in San Andreas, California. In a survey by the market research and consulting company, 58 percent of enterprises that had multiple carriers said Cisco came to mind first when they were asked about companies to provide route control, Howard said.

Digital West's Richards, who uses Cisco routers, said he would not be surprised to see Cisco offer route control, but added he would not expect that offering to have significant technical benefits over GlobalRoute. Richards likes the service component of Sockeye's product because it keeps track of the system without Digital West having to call the vendor, as well as giving Sockeye an ongoing stake in Digital West's network performance, he said. A company that wanted to use a single vendor across the whole infrastructure might see a benefit to using Cisco, he added.

The future of route control technology probably lies in a built-in system from a major vendor, like that suggested by Giancarlo, said Dave Passmore, research director at The Burton Group Corp., based in Midvale, Utah. Route control startups face an uphill battle financially because selling the technology requires an expensive educational sales effort for each customer, Passmore said. At the end of that process, each enterprise typically buys only one or two devices.

"It may be difficult to make any money selling these as standalone products, whereas if it's just a feature in IOS, it becomes a different business model," Passmore said.

Sockeye executive Hannigan acknowledged the company has had to do some education but said the cost of selling route control has declined as more potential users find out about the technology.

"A lot of that education happened last year. .. I believe that piece of the sales cycle has substantially shortened," Hannigan said.

Cisco could either bundle route control with IOS or offer it as an extra-cost feature, and it has a well-established sales channel through which to sell it, he said. Where this capability should reside is another question, Passmore said. Although routers run IOS now, route control tasks might bog down a router, he said.

"Some of their customers may find that their routers don't have enough ... (central processor) cycles to run route control," Passmore said. "In general, this is a function that could be more easily or readily deployed in a server" that sits alongside the router. Cisco might also sell customers bigger routers or more memory to handle the load, he added.

Digital West's Richards thinks it likely Cisco would offer a router hardware blade for route control, because the function otherwise might consume a lot of processing power in the brains of the router.

"I'm not sure I'd feel very comfortable having it done on the primary route switch processor," Richards said.

A Cisco entry into the market might actually help startups, which basically initiated the market about 18 months ago, Howard said. The market is still young and if Cisco starts talking about the route control it might help the specialized vendors by raising awareness.

However, smaller players might be squeezed out by a Cisco offering. Cisco customers might hold out for the Cisco offering in hopes of lower costs and less complexity, Howard said.

Over the long term, route control is going to move into routers as part of a larger trend, according to Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at The Yankee Group, in Boston.

"I see that box at the edge (of an enterprise) being a very high-function, multiservice product, and Cisco's in a luxurious position because they own most of the router market," Kerravala said. Makers of standalone route control appliances might become acquisition targets, though vendors such as Sockeye that also offer a service might fare better, he said.

Route control technology has a big future for multiple applications, including IP call centers and customer relationship management, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects Inc., an industry analysis company in Washington, D.C. Cisco's interest in the technology is part of a broader strategy, he said.

"They are using the leverage and the power of IOS in order to expand their marketplace," Dzubeck said.