Analysis: Sprint's march to convergence
(IDG) -- Sprint Corp. yesterday announced a new network architecture that will run all voice and data services over a single platform called the Integrated On-Demand Network (ION).
But Sprint officials stopped short of announcing any specific services or prices for those services. And although the core backbone for the ION services -- ATM switching over a high-speed SONET transport layer -- is largely complete, the edge of the network, including key software, is still a work in progress.
The ION service suite is expected to include a combined voice and data offering that will offer high quality of service by using ATM standards rather than incomplete voice-over-IP standards. But in order to use the ION services, Sprint users will have to connect to one of Sprint's ION Service Nodes, which are still under construction.
At each Service Node, Sprint will employ a Magellan Vector switch to provide switching and trunk termination. Vector is a multiservice ATM box jointly developed by Northern Telecom, Inc. and FORE Systems, Inc. Then, to provide the ION feature set, Sprint and Bellcore are jointly developing high-end server software applications known as Service Manager, Security Manager and Feature Manager, according to Marty Kaplan, a top Sprint network operations official.
Feature Manager, in particular, will provide emulation of services provided off traditional "Class 5" circuit switches -- the type used by local exchange carriers. As a result, Sprint could, for example, complete ordinary local telephone calls with features such as call waiting.
The Magellan Vectors are already installed, but the Feature Manager and other software is still in co-development with Bellcore, according to Kaplan. A firm installation date for the software was not immediately available.
"The only part of this that concerns me is that Bellcore is not an organization that's known for its expedited product development," said Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., a technology assessment firm in Voorhees, N.J.
In addition, Sprint only has seven of the Service Nodes in partial operation today, compared with several hundred traditional points of presence with central office-class circuit switches. Kaplan said 27 Service Nodes will be available by year-end.
To obtain access to a business customer's site to connect to the Service Nodes, Sprint will use a platform called the Broadband Metropolitan Area Network, or BMAN. Typically this will consist of OC-3 or OC-12 high-speed rings circling an urban area and OC-3 collector circuits traversing major concentrations of commercial sites.
However, in a major departure from the strategy of all its principal competitors, Sprint will not actually build or own these BMAN circuits. Instead, Sprint will lease them from regional Bell operating companies or competitive local exchange carriers (CLEC). Sprint officials said this means they have more or less permanently decided not to become a facilities-owned CLEC themselves. "We don't think that we need to make that investment," Kaplan said. "We don't think that you need to own everything to provide these services."
Most of Sprint's competitors disagree. MCI Communications Corp. already provides an end-to-end service over MCI-owned local and long-distance facilities called networkMCI Broadband Connections. MCI officials have said they need to own the facilities end-to-end to be able to offer end-to-end guarantees such as 50 msec restoral of network outages. The MCI service is expected to grow dramatically if and when MCI merges with WorldCom, Inc., which owns local networks in 75 cities.
Likewise, AT&T is purchasing Teleport Communications Group to give it ownership of local Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) rings in more than 50 cities. Until then, it offers a broadband end-to-end service called Accu-Ring that employs leased SONET capacity from RBOCs or CLECs.
In Sprint's case, most of the BMAN leases are yet to be signed, Kaplan said, although he cited Atlanta as the first metropolitan area where the system is in place. Sprint plans to have 36 BMAN networks in place by year-end, he said.
To run the services, one more element will be required -- what Sprint officials dub a "business hub" but is actually an ATM access device in one user's location or shared by multiple tenants in an office building. The initial users of ION service are expected to use Magellan Passport ATM switches from Nortel, which go beyond mere ATM adaptation to provide their own multiservice features.
However, by the end of the year, Sprint officials indicated they will switch their preferred supplier of the business hub to Cisco Systems, Inc. Cisco just this past Monday announced several IP-capable ATM service nodes that could be used for the job. The expectation is that Sprint users will be able to plug in their PBXs, fax servers, LAN hubs and other networking gear into the Cisco box to run multimedia traffic over a single high-speed access link.
The apparent switch from Nortel to Cisco caused some tension between Nortel and Sprint yesterday, especially since Sprint CEO William Esrey confirmed that Sprint will stop buying Nortel's traditional central office circuit switches in favor of the ATM-based service nodes.
At the customer sites, "I would still expect that Passport would be a serious contender for the customer opportunities [Sprint] will have," said Doug Kaye, vice president for engineering and operations in Nortel's Enterprise Data Networks unit. However, use of an ATM access gateway rather than a full-fledged ATM enterprise switch could reduce costs for both the carrier and user, Kaye said.
In either case, Sprint marketing officials said they had not yet decided whether to charge users separately for the business hub or build it into the monthly charges for the ION products.
"I think they've got a hole in the subscriber relationship space," Nolle said. "They haven't articulated a strategy to create, provision and make accessible these [converged] applications."
A strong possibility is that for the data portion of the service suite, Sprint will offer services that look like IP-based virtual private networks through to the ATM gateway on the customer premises, and then carry them as ATM through the Sprint network.
For voice applications, Esrey and other Sprint officials emphasized -- and Nolle agreed -- that voice over IP is not as well suited as straight voice over ATM to cut out traditional long-distance phone calls with a toll charge.
David Rohde is a senior editor Network World Fusion.
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