Its About the App, Stupid

It doesn't take a psychic to see that IP service is a priority.

Figuring out that delivery of IP services was the top objective of carriers and service providers last year didnt really require the $1.99-per-minute phone consulting services of Miss Cleo or her psychic friends.

Makers of equipment designed to deliver virtual private networks and other value-added services were supposed to have a breakout year in 2001, as service providers focused on bulking up revenue by going beyond all-you-can-eat access. But the payday for manufacturers of IP services gear — such as CoSine Communications, Lucent Technologies, Nortel Networks and others — never arrived. Most carriers beefed up their bottom lines by cutting back on capital spending instead of rolling out new services.

One reason the IP services message has yet to resonate with carriers could be that equipment makers continue to employ a raw-bandwidth mentality when it comes to delivering value-added services such as security and service-level agreements (SLAs). But a crop of new players say its not the pipes that matter — its the applications that flow through them.

"It doesnt do you any good to have a great connection between two critical points if the right applications are not getting through," says David Bregman, senior technologist of NetReality.

NetReality, which has its roots in the enterprise market, recently introduced bandwidth management gear designed to enable providers to deliver service contracts that are defined in terms of application performance, rather than raw bandwidth. If service providers hope to attract the business of enterprises, Bregman says, they must be able to guarantee that they can meet specific performance metrics for applications.

CloudShield and P-Cube deliver equipment for the edge of the service provider network, built specifically to focus on application processing. P-Cube execs use the term "service engineering" to describe the companys service creation function. A sort of bandwidth management function, ser- vice engineering involves optimizing broadband connections to ensure that applications receive a specific level of performance. For example, P-Cubes hardware could be aligned with a policy database to ensure that all traffic from an Oracle database was delivered without delay. Traffic associated with Web browsing, however, could be designated as best effort.

"It allows service providers to turn a bandwidth SLA into an application SLA," says Muni Perzov, P-Cubes vice president of marketing.

This summer, CloudShield introduced a piece of network equipment that is dedicated to speeding up application processing to match the raw speed of optical connections. Like P-Cubes equipment, CloudShields packet processing technology uses state-of-the-art processors to peer into each packet that passes through the network. This capability is necessary to do the sorting and prioritization needed to guarantee performance at the application level, says Peder Jungck, CloudShields co-founder and CEO.

Peering deep into the contents of packets traveling at optical rates is such a processor-intensive exercise that it requires dedicated equipment, Jungck says. Both CloudShield and P-Cube have designed equipment to complement existing routers and service management software.

Performing routing, service management and service creation tasks also requires dedicated equipment, Jungck says, suggesting that the new crop of IP services devices are too busy doing other chores to provide application-level processing.

"Were going to pull the money away from Shasta [a division of Nortel], SpringTide [family of Lucent products] and Quarry [Technologies]," Jungck says, referring to three of the 20 or so players in IP services. "They know how to deliver a bit, but this is about services."

Players in the edge router space, however, disagree. Fusing together multiple functions offers service providers operational efficiencies, says Karen Livoli, director of product marketing of Unisphere Networks IP routing business unit. In September, Unisphere added Ethernet-based enhancements to its ERX family of edge routers. When combined with the equipments full routing features, the enhancements enable service providers to deliver applications over Ethernet pipes that are customized to individual users, Livoli says.

Like Unisphere, edge router makers Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks claim their equipment has sufficient processing power to do both routing and application-based processing. But the issue of whether subscriber management, service creation and routing functions should reside on a single piece of equipment is one of contention.

Service adaptation, in particular, is best left to a separate device, says Kirk Wrigley, president of Axerra Networks. The startup positions its AXN Multiservice IP Concentrator as a mediation device that takes in virtually any sort of traffic and adapts it to run over an IP-based backbone.

Axerra recently announced the completion of customer trials with Telia International Carrier, in which the carrier sent multiple types of traffic over an IP network.

Wrigley says his company decided that it made more sense to create a device that could be paired with an edge router, rather than compete with the likes of Cisco, Juniper and Unisphere.

With the focus now on application processing, and with equipment makers divided on how functionality should be divvied up at the edge of the network, industry experts are actually less certain of the IP services market this year than last.

Perhaps its time to place a call to Miss Cleo after all.