Kai Eng Drives Intelligent Packets to Break the Bottleneck

Channel Partners

February 1, 2001

8 Min Read
Kai Eng Drives Intelligent Packets to Break the Bottleneck

Posted: 02/2001

Kai Eng Drives Intelligent Packets to Break
the Bottleneck
By Bruce Christian

Gene Roddenberry would be so proud that his futuristic TV show "Star
Trek" has had so much influence in today’s world, that even a recognized
telecommunications industry innovator borrows from the sci-fi program’s creator.

Kai Eng, founder, president and CEO of Village Networks Inc. (www.villagenetworks.com),
unabashedly admits he coined "packet beaming" or "data
beaming" after seeing Star Trek characters "beam" ship to ship as
his way to describe how his new optical transport system–Optical Flow
Networking–moves packets through fiber.

But Eng is more than a man intrigued by Roddenberry’s ideas. He is a
visionary who takes his ideas and makes them reality. During the past 20 years,
he already has nearly 40 patents registered in his name.

Before there was a "Silicon Valley," Eng began his career 20 years
ago at Bell Labs in New Jersey. There, his contributions focused in the areas of
high-performance switching and networking. As head of the broadband networks
research department, he led the effort to achieve the technology breakthrough
that delivered the world’s first terabit ATM switch, the development of a
high-speed wireless ATM multimedia system and led significant research on
gigabit networking.

"At Bell Labs, I really had a wonderful career," Eng recalls.
"I was working with the best people in my profession in research."

Indeed, his office was next to another industry giant, Arno Penzias, the
winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of cosmic microwave
background radiation, which gave unprecedented support to the "Big
Bang" theory of the universe’s creation.

Despite how he moved the industry forward through his visionary thinking, Eng
also had a dream that may have taken years to become reality if he had remained
at Bell Labs, so he left three years ago to form his own company.

"One of my dreams as a researcher was to break the bottleneck between
transmission and switching," Eng explains. "The transmission guys are
the guys doing optical fiber and high-speed transmission; they always control
the highest speed in the network.

"The switching guys are analogous to the toll booth collection mechanism
on the highway. You run 100 miles an hour on the highway and come to a dead stop
at the toll booth. So the switching guys are the bad guys. They mess up the
entire network."

What Eng had in mind to break the bottleneck was something he was unsure Bell
Labs was ready to tackle.

"Trying to persuade a large company to take on a major initiative of
this type would take a long time," Eng says. "The votes would have to
be counted and recounted, not for perhaps six weeks, but 600 years. At Village
Networks, we don’t have any recounts. We don’t have a Supreme Court

What Village Networks has is a dedicated team of researchers that knows and
respects Eng. Some of them followed him from Bell Labs. And for the first two
years, they worked in a stealth mode.

"We did not have any venture capital money. We were doing the company
bootstrap style, so we were working day and night without any outside money.

"But we did manage to build a product on our own, which was a gigabit
Ethernet switch for enterprise applications," Eng says. "When I
finished that product and began shipping it to customers, that is when we
realized we could not possibly expand the company to the vision I wanted unless
we were to take outside investment."

It got $10 million in January 2000, and completed a second round of
financing–an additional $40 million–in October.

Village Networks has grown from the 10 employees to more than 100 people.

"And we have not spent a dime on recruiting," Eng says. "We
did this mostly under stealth mode, and personal reputation and connections. It
shows how strong the commitment within the team is. We are very proud of

The venture capital and increased work force have helped Eng inch closer to
the product he believes will change packet switching–the Intelligent Optical
Packet Node, or iOPN2000. (See "Preying on Service Providers," page

"It is a complete packet working node," Eng says. "It is not
just a router or multiplexer."

Eng adds the iOPN2000 is what will help Village Networks meet its mission
statement: "driving the intelligence of packets into waves."

"We want to impress upon you that the key word is ‘driving,’" Eng
emphasizes. "Intelligence is of course intelligence, packets are packets,
and waves are optics."

In describing his latest achievement, Eng says the iOPN2000 has three major
benefits: unbreakable optical IP flows, instant packet-beam creation and radical

It is meeting these three benefits that makes Eng say, "We believe we
are the leader in the next wave of optical services by combining the best of IP
networking and the best of optical networking.

"I am the world’s ranking expert [in optical networking]. Switching the
packets is one thing, but processing the packets at the same time is a

Eng exlains that when a user initiates an IP conversation across a network,
the IP packet is not distinguished from other packets, so it can merge with
another packet somewhere in the middle network’s center.

"Let’s say there is a fiber cut; your packet can be restored along with
everyone else’s. There is no distinction."

Eng says the iOPN2000 provides the distinction to identify your specific
packet and reroute it.

"If I can do that, I can essentially let you override somebody else’s
traffic," Eng says. "I can make your particular service unbreakable.
It is in this context that we believe this is a revolutionary step."

The second benefit is the packet, or data beaming. This also is a part of the
system that makes Eng proud.

"Your IP packet actually forms a variable bandwidth connection," he
explains. "When you send packets into the network, you actually don’t send
the packets directly into the optical network. The packets get mapped first into
a fixed-sized pipe, and then the fixed-sized pipes are mapped into the optical

"The optical network only sees those fixed-sized pipes and manages them.
They don’t really see your packet," Eng says.

"We don’t do it that way," he continues. "We do it in one
step. We take your packets and map them directly into the optical domain, so as
far as our product is concerned, we actually have visibility all the way to the
packet level. Ultimately that means we can create any bandwidth anytime,

"It is this capability that I consider data beaming. Visualize that your
packets are beamed directly into the optical network."

The third benefit Eng calls radical simplicity, because the iOPN2000
integrates the packet processing and optical networking functions into a single
element. This means fewer network elements, management systems, layers and
protocols. That results in dramatically simplified operations, management,
maintenance and provisioning.

With a single optical layer, integrating the IP, ATM and SONET/SDH layer, Eng
says networking flexibility, scalability and granularity of control are

An added benefit of reducing the layers is a lower cost.

Of course, while next-generation carriers may be able to take advantage of
Village Networks’ solution more easily than legacy carriers, Eng says the
incumbents are important.

"It is fundamental [to today’s traffic] and revolutionary. The bigger
the carrier, the bigger the vision, and they could deploy it … so we welcome
them on a migration strategy."

"Infrastructure has to be updated all the time because of the
changes," Eng says. "To take true advantage of today’s technology,
everything has to be packetized, but we also have to work out a way for legacy
systems. We can carry the legacy signals into our optical engine. We have to

He adds that within the next few years, IP will dominate networks, and
service providers will have to alter their networks for that eventuality.

"We have a great opportunity to go to existing carriers and update their
infrastructure," Eng says. "Another dimension is that there is a lot
of fiber access, and that means a lot of opportunity."

Bruce Christian is editor in chief of PHONE+ magazine.

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