'Net pioneer Roberts touts 'Fast Flow Routing'

ARPANET developer Larry Roberts turns his attention to routers

A startup led by one of the "fathers" of the Internet debuted this week along with the company's first product.

Anagran, founded by Larry Roberts, one of the designers and developers of the ARPANET computer packet network that evolved into the Internet, announced the immediate availability of the Anagran FR-1000 Flow Router. The one-rack unit FR-1000 is designed to improve the performance of IP-based video, voice, data and wireless applications with lower cost and energy consumption than today's Layer 3 routers.

With IP service providers now offering cable- and HDTV-quality IPTV, and enterprises looking into video-based virtual meetings, video distribution represents the Internet's future, Anagran contends. Large fixed-rate flows, such as video, are not supported well with current routers, which have freeze-frame, jitter and general scalability challenges under moderate levels of network congestion.

Traditional routers process individual packets independently, with no knowledge of the current state or behavior of the flow those packets belong to, which is vital in determining the overall quality of application delivery, Anagran contends. The result is that important packets can be randomly dropped or substantially delayed.

"Routers are doing the best they can do if they don't know the rate of the flow," Roberts says. "Since they don't know how it flows, they can't know any rates. When you have a swarm of bees coming at you, all you can do is knock some of them down."

Roberts says the price of memory has decreased to the point where it is now possible to maintain flow state at the input port rather than trying to control flows at the output queue. The Anagran product is the result of seven years of work at Caspian Networks, Roberts' former core router start-up, and Anagran.

The FR-1000 resides at or just before the network edge and performs rate limiting on network flows, which are streams of packets associated with a particular session, be it a video download, image transfer or a voice call. The FR-1000 sports 48 Gigabit Ethernet ports and 96Gbps of capacity. It is compatible with existing IP routers from leading vendors and works with any WAN optimization or deep-packet inspection product, Anagran says.

Based on patent-pending technology, the FR-1000 watches and evaluates flows traveling through conventional IP router networks. Rather than being able to process and route only a succession of individual packets, Anagran's Fast Flow Routing architecture looks at each packet as part of its higher-level flow and, based on specified performance and QoS priorities, routes it.

These priorities are enforced through Intelligent Flow Discard (IFD), Anagran's approach to traffic control and congestion management that is designed to meter incoming flows by class and eliminate delay and packet loss caused by traditional routers' large output queues under traffic overload. The FR-1000 keeps statistics on each flow in real time -- the source, destination, the amount of traffic running, the duration and other metrics that define the flow.

To help ensure sustained performance and quality for real-time services, such as video and voice, the router also uses an Anagran feature called Behavioral Traffic Control (BTC) to prohibit any flows from using more than their allotted share of network resources. It does this by adjusting every flow's class, rate or route to control P2P or any other traffic type to help guarantee real time application performance and minimize delay for all traffic.

Together, IFD and BTC are intended to enable sustained network backbone-transmission use rates of more than 90 percent under all conditions, regardless of how much traffic is being pumped into the network, Anagran says. This can save enterprises and service providers money, the company claims, because they can build out their networks much less conservatively in terms of configuring excess capacity or overprovisioning.

At 300 watts, the FR-1000 also requires 80 percent less power than existing routers, Anagran claims, and its 1RU footprint also frees up rack space.

Because it is built for flow routing, analysts say the FR-1000 serves a practical need but not one that isn't being addressed by leading router vendors through ancillary queuing, deep-packet inspection, rate shaping and policing, and selective packet-discard techniques.

"Their technology is deep-packet inspection," says Michael Kennedy of Network Strategy Partners. "I think the distinction they're making is that flow routing is not an adjunct as it would be in a standard router. The fundamental argument is that this is the way requirements for new services are going so this should an integral part of the core product, rather than an adjunct."

"People are trying to do some of this kind of stuff, but where they are doing it is in route processing," says Jerald Murphy of the Robert Frances Group. "They're trying to make some of these types of analytical decisions, but they're being done on a per packet basis" during route processing and at the output queue.

"This is something that's helpful at any place that you have a network-boundary condition," he says.

Murphy believes Anagran's challenges will be in demonstrating return on investment for "fundamentally redesigning your network architecture" and in convincing service providers with peering arrangements that FR-1000 will add value to their network even if it's not deployed in peered network.

The FR-1000 has been running in multiple service provider and corporate network test environments for over six months, Anagran says. Kennedy believes FR-1000 may find some interest among "second tier" companies such as content hosting companies looking to increase performance at a data center, rather than retrofitting an entire network with a start-up's product.

The list price for the FR-1000 is US$70,000.

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