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Let's Find a Better Route

Anyone with a good idea risks tipping their hand to the competition if they talk too loudly. The folks at San Mateo, Calif.-based RouteScience know that.

Since the launch of its innovative PathControl product in August, RouteScience, once of the first companies to announce its entry into the business of "intelligent routing," has been met by an onslaught of new competition. Sockeye Networks of Newton, Mass., last week become the latest player to throw its hat into the ring when it unveiled GlobalRoute, a service version of intelligent routing. Add to that the offerings of Radware, Internap and netVmg, as well as shrinking IT budgets due to the worst economic conditions in nearly a decade, and you'll get a competitive landscape that's a lot more crowded than the dog days of summer.

But RouteScience officials are learning to take things in stride. To deal with the newest New Economy, it announced this week that it is bringing its intelligent routing product down to more affordable levels and, as such, to a hopefully larger customer base. It also said it raised $30.5 million in a second round of venture capital financing.

"The basic question is: isn't this a much larger market? And we believe the answer is: yes. It's actually a bigger opportunity than the initial early adopters segment of the market here," said Kurt Kruger, senior director of marketing at RouteScience.

Whether or not a scaled down version of intelligent routing will take off is now up to market forces. And, given the new competition, analysts believe that a shake-out is inevitable. But the mere fact that competition has increased speaks volumes about the viability of a market segment that was non-existent at this time last year.

"It's validating the space," said Michael Hoch, senior analyst of Internet Infrastructure for Aberdeen Group.

What's so intelligent about routing?
"Intelligent routing" is a method of performance enhancement that re-thinks the traditional Internet routing tables, which currently rely on a set of rules known as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) to determine the hopping structure of an outbound Internet signal. Because the protocol doesn't take into account past performance, routes aren't optimized if there is any sign of gridlock or congestion. Information packets would slam head-on into traffic.

In contrast, intelligent routing communicates with servers located on the edge of the Internet using the same BGP rules but overwrites the protocol any time the hops aren't optimal. The end result is a more cost-effective use of bandwidth and predictable Internet performance regardless of the amount of congestion and delay in the Internet core. The organization, for example, can then route traffic to the ISP links that actually deliver the best end-to-end performance depending on the user's specific needs.

Clearly, the technology is a logical evolution of Internet Protocol (IP) and further proves that age-old adage -- "build a better mousetrap." RouteScience first attempted to capitalize on intelligent routing in August when it announced PathControl -- a modular hardware device with 14 slot chassis and capacity for up to 10 ISP links priced from $140,000 to $250,000 depending on the configuration. At the time, the company bragged that PathControl was in field trials with key enterprise customers including a large Web portal and several major financial services institutions and will be available for volume shipments in October.

Mine is better than yours
Since then, it delivered on its promises, shipping the high-end version to high-trafficked, enterprise customers. But competitors are now encroaching with different product offerings -- some, like PathControl, in the form of a hardware product like netVmg (which stands for "net velocity made good") but others in the form of a service like Sockeye.

Sockeye's main differentiator -- or "special sauce" as investors referred to it during the heady dot-com craze -- is its exclusive deal with neighboring Akamai Technologies Inc. to access its network of more than 13,000 servers on over 1,000 networks for accessing data on global Internet traffic conditions. Those connections have helped the GlobalRoute service deliver 70 percent better performance compared with BGP routing selections and lowers bandwidth and network management costs by up to 40 percent for enterprises and service providers that use more than one connection to the Internet, Sockeye argued.

So does that make Sockeye a the clear-cut winner? Certainly not, Hoch contended.

"There's no outright winner yet...it's too early to say," the analyst said.

A strategic alliance with Akamai doesn't prove Sockeye has the better technology. But in the same vein, RouteScience's time-to-market advantage may not amount to a hill of beans. Still, with the introduction of a lower-end solution, RouteScience is proving to take a sensible approach to its business.

"I would think that given the newness of this space, that there is a lot of experimentation about who is going to buy. Coming out with a lower-priced product is a way to diversify your sales channel," Hoch said.

Made for an organization with multiple locations that wants to link together through the Internet, PathControl 1.1 has an eight-slot chassis and will be available in January 2002. The company said it has a starting price of $99,900 for the eight-slot chassis in a two ISP link configuration. One key difference between the low-end version is its ability to send traffic to known endpoints at regular intervals -- what RouteScience refers to as "Active Measurement." In comparison, the higher end version of PathControl uses "passive measurement" only sending traffic when a end-user requests a web page.

This gives the low-end version functionality similar to the offerings of Mercury Interactive. RouteScience officials believe this is the future for intelligent routing.

"Route control could eventually replacement private networks with IP-VPNs," Kruger said.