TOKYO - Four Japanese companies have formed a consortium to develop router architecture and packet-prioritization technology that they hope will secure them a role in defining the next-generation Internet.
Hitachi Ltd., NEC Corp., Furukawa Electric Co, Ltd. and Sumitomo Electric Industries Ltd. are launching the joint R&D project with funding of about $9 million from the Japan Information Processing Development Center, which operates under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).
Key to the project, which will leverage supercomputing and parallel processing techniques, is a common design approach to tera- and peta-bit routers-products whose bit rates outrun current offerings by 100 to 1,000 times.
An implied goal of the joint work is to stake a place for Japanese OEMs in the global router market, currently dominated by Cisco Systems Inc. and other largely U.S. vendors. But U.S. analysts said the group faces an uphill battle against both the entrenched giants and the swelling ranks of switch and router startups in the United States.
The MITI-backed effort is one of two next-generation router projects expected to emerge here. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) will allocate about $6 million in the fiscal year beginning in April for R&D into technologies that would enable what MPT called "high-speed, large-capacity communication for the next-generation Internet." Few details were available about that effort at press time.
The MITI-led Real Internet Consortium (RIC) aims to propel its R&D work by broadly promoting its technologies. The four companies will collaborate with nine laboratories at eight universities: the University of Michigan, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Hokkaido University, Kyoto University, Kyushu University, Hiroshima University, Hiroshima City University and Teikyo University. The team intends to collaborate on protocol-software development with Merit, a Michigan corporate affiliate.
The consortium is headed by Masataka Ohta, a research assistant at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who has proposed a parallel architecture for high-speed routers as the core technology. The effort will be opened to other enterprises, organizations and individual researchers.
The project aims to develop protocol software that realizes quality-of-service (QoS) parameters for guaranteed transmission characteristics, with low packet-header overhead, as well as multicast features that can deliver video data.
"Conventional multicast protocols do not work well when the number of broadcasters increases," said Ohta. "We are going to develop a new multicast protocol, using a protocol named PIM as a base, and propose it as Static Multicast."
When QoS and multicast are supported, multiple communications channels with different latency requirements can be handled simultaneously. Thus, the project will based its routing software on parallel architectures to realize tera- to peta-bit speeds.
"Massively parallel architectures have not been successfully combined yet with QoS and multicast, because of the difficulty of handling the vast routing table. I believe we have a solution," said Ohta.
Hitachi and NEC will tap the new protocols in prototype routers within fiscal 1999, which ends in March 2000. Hitachi will apply its supercomputer technology; NEC will develop a router based on Ohta's proposed parallel architecture.
The four companies intend to announce the result at an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) meeting scheduled for May in Oslo, Norway. "We are going to propose a novel idea at IETF for discussion so that it will be [considered as] the world standard," said Ohta.
Internet-solution specialist Toshiharu Shinozaki at Hitachi Government & Public Corp.'s Information Division said the four companies hope to have secured "a 20 percent stake, or about $7 billion in sales, in the router market in 2005."
Key to establishing market position will be the companies' ability to field "new technologies that are not mere extensions of current technology," said Hiroshi Shimizu of NEC's Network Solution Promotion division.
But North American analysts said they are not overwhelmed by the consortium's plans. Former president Nick Lippis of Strategic Networks Consulting, which is recasting itself as New World Networks Inc. (Rockland, Mass.), went as far as to say that the RIC effort is "doomed before it starts." The companies may be able to influence Pacific Rim standards and purchasing habits, he said, but North American and European standards efforts are well on the way to developing solutions within IETF, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and other organizations.
Markets already are overwhelmed with U.S.-based Internet Protocol market players, Lippis added, giving the latecomers from Japan very little chance of influencing global router-market share.
"If you look at the group of companies involved, they have some good core competencies in transport and switching technologies, but what experience do they have in Layer 3 packet handling? Standards efforts in multicasting and IP QoS already are very far along, so I can't imagine the contributions on that front will carry much weight," Lippis said. "The larger RIC consortium doesn't have the right financial backing.
Government funding will not play an important role here, and the speed with which universities work is simply not fast enough for the router market."The Japanese team indeed has a long road before it. In the enterprise-router market, Cisco managed to trounce such would-be competitors as Bay Networks Inc. and Advanced Computer Communications Inc. And Cisco all but owns most mainstream router markets.
But router markets for carrier customers are opening out again, with new Internet Protocol packet-forwarding architectures. And the high-performance backbone router field, using hardware platforms that are placed in carrier central offices and Internet-service provider points of presence, has witnessed a wealth of new startups in North America, including Juniper Networks Inc., Pluris Inc., NetCore Systems Inc., Neo Networks Inc., Argon Networks Inc., Avici Systems Inc. and Nexabit Inc.
Even the edge-aggregation router market is beginning to get crowded, as Torrent Networking Technologies Corp. rolls out carrier-class architectures and as newcomers such as Redstone Communications Inc. add aggregation concepts to the mix.
In the first quarter, a host of new startups including Castle Networks Inc., TransMedia Communications Inc., Sonux Networks Inc., and Salix Networks Inc., are expected to roll hybrid circuit/packet edge switches. While the Real Internet Consortium estimates that one-third of the current, $100 billion market for PBXes will be replaced by high-speed Internet Protocol routers by 2005, the spiraling competition could make it tougher for the four companies to claim that crossover market.
-Additional reporting by Loring Wirbel