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The n -Dimensional Superswitch

Larry Roberts has a next-gen router he says will kick Cisco's ass - oh yeah, and reinvent the Internet.

By Josh McHugh

Lawrence Roberts is not a patient man. But he's trying. He's leaning over a table in the San Jose headquarters of his new company, Caspian Networks. The building's exterior is standard fare - one more box in a Silicon Valley office park - but this spartan corner nook is at the end of a curving yellow hallway lined with eerie purple lights. The shades are drawn, and the leathery, 63-year-old engineering legend is pointing out the shortcomings of the packet-switching architectures employed by his competitors - dullards like Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, and Avici Systems. "They're using hypercube or hypertoroid topology, so they're limited to six dimensions, really - three up and three down," he explains. "I've been able to take more steps, to go into n-dimensional space."

His eyes bore into me from beneath a pair of bristling eyebrows, and soon he realizes that these terms are not ringing a bell, that n-dimensional space is not my natural habitat. So he switches gears. "Look. It's like you've got a bunch of dumb gorillas working on something," he says. "You can do it a lot faster and better if you get some smart people." It sounds like a crude and condescending remark, but for Roberts, it's a multidimensional metaphor. In a technical dimension, the gorillas symbolize the IP routers at the core of the world's long-haul optical data networks, while the smart people are Roberts' new creation, an intelligent "superswitch" that he insists will replace them. In a competitive dimension, his "gorillas" are also the core-routing heavyweights - Cisco and Juniper - while the smart people represent (surprise!) the engineers at Caspian.

More than three decades ago, while a researcher at MIT, Roberts began hatching the network designs that would evolve into the Internet. For the last three years, he's been holed up with what has become a cadre of 200-plus engineers nourished on a $140 million diet - provided by Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures, WorldCom, Lucent, Merrill Lynch, and others - working on what he promises will be one of the biggest things since the birth of the Net. Now Roberts is just eight weeks from launch, when he'll announce a major backbone operator as a flagship customer. And while neither that company nor any other carrier - including WorldCom - would comment on Caspian's innovation prior to launch, Roberts has agreed to give Wired a sneak preview.

To the untrained eye, Caspian's product, the Apeiro, is a new kind of router. But Roberts says it's not a router at all, because where traditional routers are "dumb" - Roberts' shorthand for the fact that they don't differentiate between the kinds of bits running over a network - his "optical IP superswitch," as he calls it, is smart. It can identify packet types (voice, text, video, et cetera) and priorities, allowing it to determine one packet's relation to others, and expedite traffic in a way that's impossible today. For example, the Apeiro will recognize all portions of a videostream and label them as part of a greater whole so they can be more efficiently slotted and moved to their ultimate destination.

This may seem like a minor improvement, but Roberts says recognizing and prioritizing packets of data - coupled with the fact that racks of his devices can be stacked together to increase performance - will make the Apeiro as much as 1,000 times faster than typical core routers in use today. If those speed estimates prove out, Roberts says it will mean supercheap worldwide IP telephone calls clearer than those on the voice network. For people with high-speed Web access, it'll mean on-demand full-screen streaming of high-definition video. Even the dialup crowd will be able to pull up Web pages at least twice as fast.

Ultimately, Roberts says, the Apeiro will deliver an Internet that finally lives up to all the broadband hype - a platform that will dislodge every other entertainment and communications medium. "All entertainment is going to shift to the Web," he says. "You'll be able to get the programming you want, the way you want it." On the way, he promises, Caspian will reshape the routing landscape and put an end to the notion that the Net works best as a dumb network.

Of course, the fact that our Internet is dumb at all is mainly Roberts' doing. In 1967, while translating Leonard Kleinrock's theoretical work on packet switching into the Arpanet, he designed the network so that the complex routing decisions were made on the fringes. The core machines were to be as dumb as possible. For most of the 34 years since, a lot of people have seen this dumb-core, smart-edge setup as the very essence of the Internet. But Roberts says that's not the case. "Cisco thinks the network has to be dumb because we used to say, 'Keep it dumb,'" he explains. "They're doing it in a clunky, old, expensive way."

As it turns out, Roberts and his cronies (Kleinrock, Vint Cerf, and Robert Kahn) simply wanted to make sure that they, not the telecommunications carriers, had control over the fledgling network. They designed it so the complex computing happened in the university computers they had access to. "We were afraid a smart switch would get in the way of our experiment," Roberts says.

With telecom analyst firm RHK estimating that the core-routing market will grow from $2 billion in 2000 to $12.5 billion in 2003, the sort of architecture shift Roberts is suggesting could mean a windfall for Caspian. But of course Cisco is not about to hand the game over to an entrepreneur - no matter how respected he may be. In fact, Cisco and company have suspected for some time that the surging volume and complexity of Net traffic call for more routing intelligence, and they've been designing switching fabrics of their own. The trade press has been eagerly anticipating the Caspian launch, but Cisco doesn't seem concerned. "Every 18 months or so, somebody comes along and says 'We're going to reinvent routing,'" says Rob Redford, the company's senior director of marketing. "Ipsilon Networks came in with an IP switching plan," he says, referring to a networking startup touted as a Cisco-killer before it was quietly acquired by Nokia in 1997. "That fizzled."

Josh McHugh (josh@buzzkiller.net) is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

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