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BT buys Nortel Ethernet kit for 21CN

BT’s £10bn 21st Century Network project has taken a slightly surprising turn, with the announcement this week that the carrier is ordering Nortel’s Provider Backbone Ethernet kit. Out of eight vendors involved in the scheme, Ericsson is the only one that is not competing with a second supplier in its domain, the so-called i-node router.

One of Ericsson’s biggest profit centres is its Professional Services division, which sells consulting, hosting, managed services and systems integration. It has been widely predicted that the vendors’ growing services business will follow the same path as the big IT companies in the 1980s and 1990s, where they were forced to move from supporting only their own products to consulting on all technologies and all vendors.

A BT spokesperson denied that they had played any role, stating that the Ethernet domain of the 21CN contract was entirely separate from the core-network domain.

BT’s 21CN project is one of the world’s most ambitious next-generation network plans. It entails standardisation on IP throughout BT’s activities, based on a super-high capacity MPLS backbone interconnecting 15 router sites in the UK, with carrier-Ethernet regional networks connecting them to big customers and either DSL or 802.16 access networks.

The use of Ethernet for major backbone systems is a trend of the times, as the technology invented at Hawaii University and Bell Labs in the 1970s has proved far more adaptable than anyone expected. From the original 10Mbps LAN, Ethernet has evolved until gigabit speeds and metropolitan-area distances between nodes are routinely achieved with carrier-grade reliability, even on copper wire. 10 Gigabit Ethernet is now a possibility.

Many telcos and ISPs around the world are standardising, if not their backbone networks, then at least their access and backhaul systems in metropolitan markets on GigE. And some are going even further, using Ethernet-over-microwave or optical fibre in their long distance systems. It has all been helped along by the growing importance of internet exchanges (IXen), which typically rely on very high capacity Layer 2 Ethernet switching to interconnect their peers. WiMAX, or at least the 802.16d fixed flavour, is itself a wireless-Ethernet system.

The lion’s share of the work was awarded to Ericsson in 2005, in a decision that led directly to the break-up of the historic Marconi company. It seems surprising, then, that a large portion of the job should go to a third party. However, Ericsson’s position in TCP/IP and Ethernet is relatively weak, which led it to acquire Redback in the first major deal of 2007.

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