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Firms fill the need for speed

By   /   Sunday, December 7th, 2008  /   Comments Off on Firms fill the need for speed

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There’s one thing hard-pressed consumers can’t seem to get enough of – Internet speed.

Three tri-county companies – Inphi, Occam Networks and Xirrus – are in the business of bandwidth, supplying speed from the Internet’s backbone to its nerves.

With the rising popularity of bandwidth-hungry applications such as online video, they say demand is surging. They’re sounding a rare note of optimism about the year ahead.

“Even in this downturn, traffic going through the Internet backbone is growing by 60 percent a year,” said Loi Nguyen, founder and vice president of technology at Westlake Village-based Inphi.

“Even with the economy pinching people’s pockets, we feel the demand for bandwidth will keep growing,” said Bob Howard-Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Occam Networks.

They have good reason to be hopeful. Demand for bandwidth is expected to outstrip supply as early as 2012, according to Illinois-based Nemertes Research.

Supplying the Internet backbone, Inphi has a diverse product line of chips for servers, communications equipment and the test devices for the next generation of that equipment.

If Inphi serves as the backbone, Santa Barbara-based Occam Networks helps telecoms supply the nerves. The company builds blade servers that let small and mid-sized telecoms deliver copper or fiber broadband for cable, Internet and telephone applications.

Westlake Village-based Xirrus constitutes the very tip of Internet nerves. It builds Wi-Fi arrays that deliver schools, business and convention centers orders of magnitude more bandwidth than the average home wireless system. Occam Networks uses Xirrus arrays in its headquarters.

At Inphi, “Every thing that we do is driven by the demand for high bandwidth,” Nguyen said. The company’s largest business is supplying chips that help a server’s microprocessor and memory modules talk to each other. Demand for online video has propelled that market, and Inphi has shipped 50 million of its chips to it.

The Internet’s backbone – supplied by giants like AT&T – is Inphi’s second largest business. It’s one of the leading suppliers to the 40-gigabit networks that are replacing older 10-gigabit versions.

“In the 40-gigabit market, with our transimpedance amplifiers, we’re shipping most of the parts that are in production today,” Nguyen said. “The market for 40 gigabit is doubling every year. Whether the downturn will affect it or not, we expect it to continue to be a major driver.”

Inphi also makes chips for the equipment used to test and measure networks. It benefited from the transition from 10-gigabit networks to 40-gigabit networks and now stands to gain from the transition to 100-giagbit Ethernet. Engineering groups expect to publish standards for that technology in 2010.

“It’s the question of how fast can we grow,” Nguyen said.

Down the nervous system from Inphi sits Occam Networks. The company sells blade servers to small and mid-size telecoms for fiber or copper broadband services.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Howard-Anderson, Occam’s CEO. “So far, we’ve been kind of protected from what’s happening.”

Occam just moved past the 300 customer mark, with 10 or more customers signing on each quarter over the past two years. Howard-Anderson is even optimistic that small towns and rural areas will be more aggressive than urban areas in upgrading networks because of federal programs to help soften the cost. Also, many rural networks are customer-owned co-operatives and are adamant about reinvesting profits in infrastructure. As fiber wire displaces copper, that could be a boon.

“The advent of fiber-to-the-home and fiber-to-the-premises is the change that’s giving us this opportunity,” Howard-Anderson said. But because fiber is probably the biggest expense telecoms face, “Clearly, they are going to be cautious about it.”

Even there Occam may have an opportunity. Its products can handle both fiber and copper, letting telecoms ingrate fiber at their own pace without switching platforms.

Often the pinch point in Internet speed comes at the very end of the network, where users connect their computers. That’s where Xirrus comes in.

The firm has designed Wi-Fi devices that cram up to 24 radios and a switch into a single device, delivering high-bandwidth while saving on energy and maintenance.

Its newest product will deliver about 4.8 gigabits per second. To put that in perspective, the average home wireless router achieves 54 megabits per second – an order of magnitude less than a Xirrus array.

“The only time we lose is when politics enter into the deal,” said John Merrill, Xirrus’ director of marketing. “We always win in technology bake-offs because we have the superior product.”

Targeting schools, office spaces and even convention centers, Xirrus is confident its products offer enough value to do well in a down market.

“Things have been going great – tremendous,” Merrill said. “People are guarding their budgets more as of late, but we save organizations time, money and resources. They are very open to getting more with less.”

 

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