Users, Analysts Unsure of Nortel's Open IP Plan

Company says it will save money, but some question suitability, open standard

Nortel Networks Corp. is trying to persuade network administrators to employ a technology that isn't quite proven to solve a problem that isn't quite here.

The technology is Open IP, a suite of Nortel software that uses many devices throughout a network to deal with the packet handling now mostly done either at the edge of networks or their core.

Nortel, in Brampton, Ontario, claims that doing packet handling locally is more cost-effective than passing the packets to a dedicated device, such as a router, to send them to their destination.

This would help networks handle future increases in Web traffic, Nortel claims, as well as new types of traffic.

But the message from Nortel about what exactly Open IP is, what it does, who should buy it and why users should care has some industry observers baffled.

Some users, such as Charlie Boyle, director of research and development at Digex Inc. in Beltsville, Md., are skeptical about using devices that were designed for other purposes, such as application serving, for routing data packets. "It seems to me (Nortel is) trying to push routing services into the host (server) instead of the router. I don't want my Sun server doing routing," he said.

On the other hand, he said, distributing routing capabilities among multiple devices might make it easier to link new data sources, such as handhelds, to a network.

"We're already starting to get away from big-intelligence routing," done mostly at the network core, Boyle said. Layer 7 switches, for example, perform some routing capabilities at the edge of networks by deciding which server should respond to requests for specific applications or data.

Nortel announced Open IP Version 2.0 last month. It includes open application programming interfaces to link Open IP routing functions to underlying operating systems and processors.

Open IP has had low visibility with many information technology managers because, until now, Nortel has licensed it mainly to companies that build chips used in the network hardware IT managers purchase. Those vendors include Intel Corp., IBM and Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill.

Another point of concern is that Open IP isn't truly open, because developers who want to create routing applications based on it have to purchase the software.

Nortel wouldn't pin a price on Open IP, but a company spokesman said, "There's a basic licensing fee and then a charge for each network processor or device in which it's used."

Ron Westfall, an analyst at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va., said he sees Open IP as a way for Nortel to influence the router market while acknowledging that Cisco Systems Inc. will keep a large part of network hardware sales.

"While Cisco is the undisputed leader in the routing code market, its (Internet operating system) technology is proprietary and bound to the company's routing products," Westfall said.

"The bottom line from an end-user perspective involves the next wave of embedded IP technology," said Laurie Gooding, an analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Newton, Mass. "Taking the router code and putting it in end-user devices simplifies access to information and other people."

What Nortel is doing with Open IP could also be as much about marketing as it is about technology, said Gooding.

"Cisco started getting its mind share by (portraying) what Nortel and Lucent were doing as old-world telephone company technology," Gooding said. Now Nortel in its Open IP announcements compares Open IP to "old-world routing."

"Nortel may be trying to turn the tables on Cisco," she said. "History would indicate that Cisco will dominate, but I credit Nortel with having the savvy to say 'We can play that game, too.' "

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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