Programming the future network – programmable switches in the telecommunications industry

Programming the future network – programmable switches in the telecommunications industry – Technology Information

Wayne Carter

The beginning of the end for circuit switches is at hand.

Carriers acknowledge that trying to keep up with mushrooming demand by using traditional circuit switches is a losing battle. To add services and features to the giant Class 5 switches, carriers must turn to switch vendors for new applications, and incorporating such new features into the big switches isn’t a simple operation.

Enter programmable switches, which have been in use since the late 1980s as adjuncts to large switches. Carriers can simply connect a programmable platform to an existing switch to immediately add enhanced-services capabilities. The platforms can accept programming from a variety of vendors, adding flexibility in choosing enhanced-services applications.

The programmable switch itself is one of three pieces. There also must be controlling software, known as the host program, and external media to provide speech recognition and other enhanced-services functions.

Under the control of the host program, programmable switches process calls and perform all kinds of intervention functions, such as play prompts and perform credit-card checks, says Peter Carlino, business development director for Summa Four.

Summa Four and Excel are the clear market leaders in programmable switching. They have established themselves as strong providers of adjunct solutions, but they are now looking to expand their switches’ roles in the network.

“The programmable switch at one time was used in a very niche market,” says Paula Foster, marketing director for Excel. “Programmable switches are moving into the networks themselves, providing enhanced services and network routing.”

Although programmable switches have mostly worked with larger switches, they can act as stand-alone switches as long as the load is not too heavy. As smaller competitive local exchange carriers and wireless operators spring up, the opportunities for relatively inexpensive, very flexible and scalable switching platforms are growing proportionately.

“Looking at the computer industry, this is not a new concept,” Carlino says, adding that computer hardware and software companies have figured out their core competencies, and through open systems, users can get the best possible solution at the lowest possible price.

A good parallel for programmable switches and traditional switches is personal computers and mainframes, says Probe Research Analyst Hilary Mine.

“If you need flexibility and to add applications quickly and cheaply, a PC is good,” she says. “On the other hand, if you need to process billions of transactions, a mainframe is cheaper. The same arguments apply [to switching].”

That’s how programmable switch vendors hope to move their products into the space of primary central office switches: targeting carriers that don’t need the call processing power of a Class 5 switch. A start-up carrier can even choose not to deploy a programmable switch at its full capacity, then easily scale the platform to meet demand as its business grows.

That type of switch, one that lets the user quickly and easily expand capacity and change services and features, will eventually become the type of switch for which carriers predominantly look.

“These switches themselves are going to be the basis for the next generation central office switching systems,” says Ken Kelly, Dataquest senior analyst. “Programmability, scalability and survivability, combined with packet switching, that’s what you’re looking at as the next generation of switches.”

However, it will be some time before the new generation usurps the old guard’s dominant position in networks. The traditional switches still function well, and carriers aren’t going to toss away a huge investment that hasn’t lived out its useful life.

“There’s a heavy embedded base of circuit switches, and nobody can afford to throw them away,” Kelly says. “We’ll need the big switches for some time to come.”

Carlino agrees, adding that he wouldn’t suggest anyone throw away Class 5 switches.

Target audience remains That doesn’t mean the outlook isn’t changing for switching vendors.

Circuit switch bastion Northern Telecom is already more than a year into a program that adds programmability to its stalwart DMS platform. The idea came from Nortel’s large customers.

“All of them were using third-party programmable switches-in some cases, more than one manufacturer’s [programmable switches],” says Mike Doerk, senior brand manager for Nortel’s programmable switching platform. “The common theme was, ‘We’d like Nortel to develop the ability on the DMS platform to perform the same functions.'”

Nortel developed software that allows programmable-switch capability to be activated on in-service DMS switches, but the company also allowed for the solution to be deployed as simply a programmable switch (Figure 1).

“It can act as a stand-alone programmable switch and do nothing but programmable-switch functions under the control of an offboard [host] program,” Doerk says. “We’re bringing to the programmable switch market a platform with the same levels of reliability, redundancy and robustness that the DMS platform has demonstrated over the years.”

Still, the Nortel platform is better-suited for a different target market from the market the smaller programmable switch vendors have in mind. In comparing the DMS platform to other programmable switches, Doerk points out that current programmable switches typically support 1500 to 2000 trunks, whereas the DMS can support tens of thousands of trunks on a single platform. That’s not the kind of capacity that small start-up carriers typically would need or want to pay for right off the bat.

“I think what will shake out is that Nortel is more cost-effective for larger carriers,” says Mine.

Yet the fact that Nortel is turning its attention to the matter and opening its core platform to applications from other vendors is a telling sign that programmability is becoming increasingly important for switch operators. It’s not a stretch to expect other major switch vendors to follow suit, Mine says. In the traditional switch world, all intelligence resides on the switch itself. Switch vendors must develop new applications, and that will happen only if enough demand exists among users for a new application.

“What Nortel did is say, ‘Let’s leverage the intelligent network, open the DMS platform application programming interface and allow others to program for it,” Mine says. “All switches are programmable. It’s a question of who can program for them.”

Nortel’s entry into the market is less a threat to individual competitors than a boost to the overall market, says Excel’s Foster.

“The fact that Nortel decided to introduce a programmable switch architecture is really great,” she says. “A company in the traditional switch market recognizes the need for programmable capability. It’s similar to IBM holding back on PCs until the market was made by other companies. [Nortel’s presence] will only continue to validate the market for open programmable switches.”

As with personal computers, the more open the platform, the greater the number of choices the user has in setting up a station or network. PC users can choose a variety of hardware and software options to custom-fit their needs. And as programmable switches become more prevalent and more vendors develop applications for them, carriers will have similar flexibility in building networks.

“The network is moving toward the convergence of voice and data, voice over IP,” Foster says. “As long as we have a platform that’s open, we can easily add those new services.”

As more companies develop the necessary applications to provide those services, the easier it will become for carriers to take advantage of programmable switches, says Rob Rich, senior vice president of telecommunications research at The Yankee Group.

“[Switch operators] can get intelligent hosts with call-processing software to drivethe host, and it essentially becomes a switch,” he says, adding that increasing scalability will allow programmable switches to handle significant traffic volumes. “Certainly [a programmable switch] would be a lower cost than a tandem switch.”

The advantages of programmable switches are already being exploited overseas and in budding PCS networks, Summa Four’s Carlino says. It will be crucial for switches to keep pace with the increasing complexity of the network as Advanced Intelligent Networking standards evolve.

“There’s no such thing as a basic network. There can’t be,” Carlino says. “All calls are going to be intelligent to some degree.”

Dataquest’s Kelly says the growing need to move traffic other than voice, and the intelligence required to do so, will drive demand for programmable switches.

“We’re seeing things become more data-centric,” he says. “You have to be able to handle that data, and the current generation of switches isn’t able to do that. [Switches] must also be programmable for rapid change to keep up with the transport area.”

Architecture plans differ Programmable switch vendors may be driving in the same direction, but they’re taking different roads. While Nortel is building on its core platform, Summa Four and Excel are evolving their platforms in opposite directions with regard to architecture.

Excel is embracing a distributed architecture with its Open Network Expansion architecture platform (Figure 2). It uses Excel’s Expandable Switching System hardware and software and Excel’s patented Programmable Protocol Language to allow carriers to build a distributed switching architecture that is open to integrate unrelated resources, such as interactive voice response, voice recognition and voice-over-Internet devices, into the switch. The system is designed to work with any host platform, and applications can be written independent of the network protocol. The system also allows for new technologies to be incorporated via daughter card processors, eliminating the need for system redesigns for such implementations.

“Our story of openness applies to every piece in the architecture, and it’s not just programmability,” Foster says. “Operators can change the software that runs the switch itself. As we move more and more into the network, ONE architecture allows us to provide network routing and management services required in the network infrastructure environment. We can now position ourselves as not just a programmable switch. Very often, we’re seeing ourselves being compared with traditional switches.”

With its new architecture, Excel plans to offer a platform that can support small carriers’ needs and grow to a very high density.

“[Customers] can purchase as few as a couple hundred ports and grow to meet capacity requirements up to 30,000 ports in a single switch,” Foster says.

While Excel’s thrust is for a distributed architecture, Summa Four is developing an integrated programmable switch with its Project Sigma initiative. The idea is to integrate the switch, the media (the elements that provide various capabilities such as voice, fax, speech recognition and voice/fax over IP) and the host into a single box (Figure 3).

The project is still being developed, but Summa Four has already clearly defined how the system will work. It will consist of three products: a media server designed to meet intelligent peripheral requirements; a voice-over-IP gateway that supports up to 2000 fully redundant voice-over-IP connections and a variety of compression algorithms for voice and fax; and a transport platform that scales up to 16,000 non-blocking ports and is designed for use as a programmable Class 4 or 5 switch or, for wireless, a base station controller, mobile switching center or wireless local loop controller.

“Media and switching are now fully integrated,” Carlino says. “You can move calls around and provide all the services you need. It’s a core switching platform suitable for CO deployment.”

The intended small footprint for the Project Sigma devices should make it appealing in terms of real estate costs as well as its lower initial cost to deploy. By reducing the space a single platform requires, carriers can scale their switching centers to greater densities without having to expand their actual floor space to do so. Those factors should be especially appealing to newer carriers that are just building their networks, and a network starting from scratch is an ideal opportunity for programmable switches to make inroads, Carlino says.

“Newer networks aren’t tied to [legacy equipment] constraints,” he says. “It allows them to build intelligence from the start and to be scalable.”

Changing with the times With all the new competition cropping up, established carriers are beginning to change their thinking to match that of their new competitors, says Alex McCarthy, business manager of telco network services at Dialogic, which makes media for programmable switches and has worked closely with Summa Four on Project Sigma.

“A lot of Bell [companies] are setting up internally and behaving entrepreneurially,” McCarthy says.

Part of that entrepreneurial behavior involves offering new services to customers. However, offering a new service doesn’t guarantee success. Different areas of the same city may have different demands for services. Business districts and residential areas are evidence of that. The question for carriers becomes one of determining what services will do well in which areas.

Nortel’s Doerk says that integrating the programmable switching functions into a primary switch allows carriers greater flexibility in trying out new services.

“A number of enhanced services have different busy hours,” Doerk says. “Very often, carriers have excess capacity on certain trunks. At a cost much lower than a third-party programmable switch, [carriers] can have programmable switch functionality, and they don’t have to add hardware or trunk capacity to try an enhanced service. If it takes off, they can add additional resources to handle demand. If not, they can move on to the next enhanced service.”

As programmable switches become more important to network operators, the switches themselves will have to evolve, as will the vendors and their strategies. The programmable switches enjoy several key competitive points. They include providing the same capabilities and reliability that current CO switches provide, as well as supporting industry standards such as ATM, frame relay and eventually, voice over IP. But the crucial element is building programmable switching into a standards-based function.

“The future for programmable switching lies in being established as a valid, standard architecture for switching in the future,” Excel’s Foster says. “We want to build awareness of programmable switching and have standards for the future.”

As such standards evolve, it will become easier for more companies to write applications for programmable switches, leaving carriers in an interesting quandary, says The Yankee Group’s Rich. The more applications vendors there are, the more difficult it will be to separate the wheat from the chaff.

“It ultimately opens up to a much larger group of applications developers,” Rich says. “Having it open to more [programmers] gives more choice and you probably pay a little bit less, but [carriers] obviously don’t want any Tom, Dick or Harry who’s a Unix hack” writing applications for their switches.

But, as Dataquest’s Kelly points out, those days are still far away. Despite the advances in programmable switching, such devices aren’t ready to take over for the bigger switches, and will remain still in a specialized-if slightly more expanded-role, he says.

“They’re lacking the services to use as a core switching system. The feature content in big switches is humongous,” Kelly says. “The good news is, one size doesn’t have to fit all. They can be used in rural areas where you don’t need a ubiquitous switch.”

It is clear that while programmable switches will continue to grow in importance, the growth curve will be shallow. Open programmability may become a more common feature among switch vendors, but an absolute change to programmable switches is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

“There’s no one type of switch that’s going to win out,” says Mine. “CLECs are increasing demand for smaller, more flexible platforms, but there will be continued demand for large-scale networks.”

Programmable switch vendors agree. Despite the company’s belief that its platform is a viable stand-alone switch, Summa Four’s Carlino says the company doesn’t expect its switches’ roles to entirely change from service-provisioning adjuncts to CO anchors.

“It’s a dual role,” Carlino says. “We continue to see growth on both sides.”

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