Can SmartPipes pull it together?
Start-up wants to sell service providers power to integrate customers' devices Like movies, high-tech start-ups are on a never-ending search for bankable names. In that case, Smart-Pipes has hit the jackpot, winning investments from Netscape founder (and "New New Thing" star) Jim Clark and former Excite@Home Chairman Tom Jermoluk, now of Kleiner Perkins Cau-field & Byers. His Kleiner Perkins colleague John Doerr sits on SmartPipes' board of directors.
But SmartPipes hopes to gather more than just marquee names in venture capital, said co-founder and CEO Ray Bell. The company, which is in early beta tests with customers unnamed at press time, wants to let service providers bundle the management of an enterprise customer's many end devices and hand it to SmartPipes.
"If you think about what has happened in the last four years in the networking industry, a lot of new vendors and service providers have come up with a lot of special devices and systems for point solutions... and all of them do their particular jobs very well," Bell said. "But you need a system that integrates this device intelligence and provides a common set of services across all of them. That's where Smart-Pipes comes in."
Former executives from Cisco Systems, Fore Systems and UUNet founded Smart-Pipes in October 1999. Bell came from Cisco, where he worked on directory technology, the configuration of complex databases that map out networks and their users. Before that, he worked in the highly networked environment of Oracle, and gradually he came around to putting those two elements - networking and directory software - together.
"The goal from the beginning was to solve the problems businesses were having that kept them from moving their datacom traffic off private networks such as frame relay and onto the public Internet," said Dennis Brouwer, senior marketing vice president and another SmartPipes co-founder.
SmartPipes decided to offer virtual private network (VPN) provisioning as an outsourced service for a recurring monthly fee, Brouwer said."There are a lot of products out there that do policy-based things, but typically you pay a fee for the software, and then it's up to you to figure out how to make it work. It's very complex to use this in a business-critical way."
Instead, Smart-Pipes will offer networking policy management as an outsourced service sold through ISPs and carriers. Users will be assured of up-to-date services and won't have to maintain a large IT staff to keep VPNs or extranets up and running, Brouwer said. Instead, SmartPipes will run those management functions from its dedicated data center located in Columbus, Ohio. The data center has multiple high-speed connections to multiple backbones, allowing customers to run their VPNs over multiple networks rather than confining themselves to just one, as has been the case with most VPN solutions.
For ISPs, SmartPipes offers a scalable product that relieves them of the constant management duties that VPN services usually involve. Co-branding ISPs are charged a monthly fee based on the number of sites being managed and other parameters.
The directory situated at the core of SmartPipes' proprietary software manages networks that can track many devices, many users, many applications - and many relationships that need to be manipulated. Linked to that directory is the largest piece of technology SmartPipes has developed: its policy engine - 3 million lines of code that converts an abstract business policy into network instructions, then translates it to a detailed programming language suited for each device a user employs.
For example, a typical SmartPipes customer might be a medium-sized company with a number of branch offices and remote workers or telecommuters, along with key business partners who need access to the company's inventory applications. Currently, that company has to order its IT staff to configure a passel of routers at the edges of the network, then fly out to the sites, make the changes and monitor them for long periods of time. SmartPipes will let a customer highlight all its sites on a Web-based interface, click on "Allow Internet," impose triple-DES encryption for high security and enable an extranet partner to get in and look at inventory - while keeping that same partner out of finance or human resources applications.
"When I was managing the frame relay product at CompuServe Network Services, we thought we were really pushing the limits when we allowed customers to make changes to existing circuits in five business days," Brouwer said. "The SmartPipes demo we did [at NetWorld+Interop in September] showed changes occurring in about 15 seconds." Only the provisioning traffic flows through the data center, not actual customer traffic, so there's no danger of creating a bottleneck in traffic flow.
The first SmartPipes release focuses on applying policy-based networking to routing protocols and security features, Brouwer said. Future releases will employ policies to support quality of service (QOS), whiteboarding, voice over IP and other advanced feature sets.
Those enhancements should help Smart-Pipes stand above a small crowd of other managed VPN providers, including QOS Networks and CoreExpress, which is building its own network.
Pricing and service level agreements will determine who succeeds best in that market, said Joanna Makris, program manager with The Yankee Group. "If they can make the value argument with carriers and service providers, there's a large group of enterprise customers out there who are ready for outsourced high-end services of this type."
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