Hunting down dark fiber

Leaving stealth mode after a long R&D phase, XKL seeks to unearth the benefits of DIY WAN connectivity

The speed of optical-grade broadband is beginning to reach our homes, at least those lucky enough to live in areas covered by Verizon's FiOS (fiber-optic service) or similar offerings.

[ Mario Apicella's column is now a blog! Get the latest storage news from the Storage Adviser blog. ]

In addition to providing bandwidth that shames that of alternatives such as a DSL or a T1 line, optical connections can also carry telephone calls and TV programs with ease. And they leave the door open for future applications, including telemedicine.

For the rest of us not enjoying optical broadband at home, there's little we can do until someone brings a fiber-optic cable to our door.

As for the enterprise, fiber-optic connectivity is already available. But according to a recent conversation I had with XKL, most companies are paying way too much for their connections, despite an abundance of dark fiber in the ground in most metropolitan areas.

Before you get turned off by the company's rather cryptic moniker, take note: XKL is the offspring of Len Bosack, who, you may remember, together with his wife set the foundation for Cisco and modern networking.

And his new company firmly believes its DXM Optical Transport System will help companies tap that buried dark fiber treasure to the tune of significant cost savings.

Essentially a multiprotocol gateway geared to replace telco equipment and light up your own dark fiber, this 1U redundant box sits at the edge of the WAN, connects to your optical feeds, and is capable of translating any protocol to any protocol, the company says.

As opposed to gateways that control, for example, a SONet, DXM translation is software-driven. As such, DXM doesn't need multiple, protocol-specific cards, which facilitates its 1U form factor, as compared with the much bulkier conventional telco equipment.

Each fully configured DXM box can pump as many as 100Mbps with negligible latency on its 10 channels, and you can stack up as many as four boxes for more bandwidth and more channels. DXM boxes can be connected to servers and storage devices using Gigabit Ethernet or 1Gbps or 2Gbps Fibre Channel.

According to XKL, a DXM installation should quickly pay for itself by deploying plenty of bandwidth at a price per megabit that gets more attractive as the customer's requirements increase. By contrast, managed solutions such as a DS3 connection include a recurring cost of thousands of dollar per month.

If you ever rubbed elbows with an optical engineer, you already know that telecom gears are controlled using a protocol with TL1 (Transaction Language 1), a rather arcane language.

TL1 is a standard protocol, but not a very friendly one. Think of the AT commands to control a modem, only much more complicated and probably not something with which a network admin would be comfortable or fluent.

But because DXM includes a management CLI that is similar to Cisco IOS and other routers' commands, there is no need for a TL1 optical guru, according to XKL.

A survey of DXM's specs leaves me both intrigued and a little circumspect. Bringing to life your own dark fiber pipe has both financial and practical appeal, and though the initial expenditure can be quite high, the ROI should be more than satisfactory. Moreover, being able to manage the connection without external interference from your telco can open an unprecedented degree of flexibility in terms of data protection and business continuity projects. Still, how many companies will divert attention and resources from their statutory mission to commit to DIY WAN connectivity?

Regardless, if DXM delivers as expected, its very presence on the market could force providers to review the terms of their service. Don't you love competition?

Join me on The Storage Network with questions or comments.