In the next few years, users will throw out all their specialist network-related boxes, and replace them with a single high powered "packet-cracker", according to John McFarlane, who used to run Sun's service provider business and, before that, the Solaris division, but is now chief executive of Nexsi Systems.
While IT managers are consolidating their servers and storage into simplified pools, and their basic network equipment has become a commodity, one class of equipment is spreading out of control -- the specialised boxes that apply high level processing to network packets, filtering, sorting and encrypting them. "It is unmanageable," said McFarlane, listing point products including firewalls, VPN devices, load balancers and intrusion detection systems (IDSs) and secure sockets layer (SSL) accelerators. Suppliers in this area include Nokia, F5 and Checkpoint.
"Below layer three, the network is done," he said, referring to TCP, the protocol that sits on top of layer two -- the Internet protocol -- and layer one, which is the cable. "It's effectively just copper wire. The layer two and three switches of companies like Cisco have become a commodity. The value-add is in layers four to seven, where the content and user information comes into play. Systems that crack packets and operate on data are what will enable end-to-end integration for e-business. Layers four to seven is the next great adventure in networking."
Nexsi's Content Services System combines firewall, load balancer, VPN, security and other features, and performs all this on a 1 gigabit per second (gbps) network connection at wire speed (without slowing down the network) said McFarlane. A single system replaces multiple firewalls, offering individually set-up firewalls for each department, and costs $75,000 for a system that handles five domains. Enterprises who buy it can save $400,000 on hardware costs and $200,000 per year on operations, he said -- though at this stage, the company has no publicly announced customers.
The three key factors of this new device category will be throughput, number of simultaneous sessions handled, and number of new sessions per second, while the processor has to operate on each packet. "We measure our performance in thousands of instructions per packet, per second," he said. "Others talk of packets per second."
The way McFarlane tells it, even though the need for such a box is clear, there is no competition. Nexsi got its venture money two years ago, and spent $70m developing its product, before the dot-com bubble burst and funds started clamping down. It has built a chip with 48 processors on it, and mounted five of these on a blade, with large amounts of memory. The software links to existing products and dumps information to billing systems.
Appliance companies like F5 also aim to reduce the number of appliances in the racks, by adding other functions -- firewalls gaining VPN functions for instance -- but they are hamstrung by the use of general purpose network processors, said McFarlane. Another option is for third parties to integrate point products into a rack, but that is just "a good idea for saving power and shelf space," he smirked.
However, with money tight, the main competition is the status quo -- companies that decide to make only minimal changes to their network until the economic climate changes -- buying a few more point product appliances as required.
It is natural to wonder if Nexsi is really aiming for the enterprise. Many networking products were designed during the dot-com boom for service providers, and are being repolished for enterprise use. Nexsi is not guilty of this, said McFarlane: "The initial product is getting interest from financial companies -- they look like service providers to us." Smaller products -- coming later this year -- will bring the price down to a level where more enterprises can use it, he said.
The company has set up European operations, with offices in Amsterdam, London and Paris, and is looking for distributors. "We aim to have a local presence in each country," said Dominic Byrne, sales director for Northern Europe. "The product lends itself to consultancy services and we aim to work with partners."
McFarlane joined Nexsi a year ago. The company's founders include vice president of engineering, Nazar Zaidi, who was the chief architect on Intel's Itanium iA32, and chief scientist Mark Bryers, who was also the launch chief executive of Web switch pioneer Alteon -- later bought by Nortel. "It's a convergence of network boffins," said McFarlane.