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XKL Brings New Life To Dark Fiber

XKL promises to revolutionize enterprise networking with an inexpensive, low-maintenance, easily configured gateway that employs wavelength division multiplexing over fiber cable. Its rack-mounted switch provides gobs of bandwidth at a fraction of the cost of carrier-provided optical systems.

The market for optical fiber networks will grow 14% annually over the next few years, according to research firm Infonetics. While there are other niche players out there, the networking industry's leading manufacturers--including Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, and Nortel--haven't aimed directly at this part of the enterprise market.

XKL CEO Len Bosack helped create the enterprise networking market 24 years ago as co-founder of Cisco, giving him bona fides that are impossible to ignore. At the same time, 17 years is a long time to be in startup mode, and the long period of relative invisibility means that two or three generations of networking technology have come and gone since Bosack last made an impact on the industry.

Networking specialist XKL, a 17-year-old "startup" headed by Cisco Systems co-founder Len Bosack, is getting attention because of that lineage--as well as for the audacious claims it makes for its new enterprise fiber optic switch.

XKL's mission is to let businesses create high-speed optical networks at a fraction of the cost of carrier-provided services. Its DXM Optical Transport System can "change the way" companies deploy IT, says Bosack.

How so? XKL's technology adds wavelength division multiplexing--which creates multiple data channels, each with its own wavelength, over a fiber optic link--to wide area networks. It does so using dark fiber--cable that's in the ground but not being used--at a fraction of the cost of what big carriers charge. "People in the party days were putting fiber in the ground at an incredible pace," says Bosack, referring to the dot-com era of the 1990s, "and there it still is."

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Cutting costs is only half of XKL's proposition; the other half is ease of deployment and ongoing management. Optical switching systems tend to require deep expertise, but XKL claims its system can be managed by network administrators who aren't optical networking specialists.

This is where the story of Bosack, an IT pioneer who dropped off the map when he left Cisco in 1990, takes an Oedipal twist. He's out to revolutionize enterprise networking, which means taking on the market leaders, including Cisco, as well as the big carriers. Given Bosack's background, some big companies already are eyeing XKL's system. The company's director of business development, Robert Michaels, won't disclose potential customers but says they're "household names."

The unanswered question is whether they'll be willing to drop their existing carrier-provided networks in favor of equipment from a company that's basically been in stealth mode for a decade and a half.

Driving his 15-year-old Land Rover across the Route 520 bridge into Seattle, Bosack describes the nature of the challenge XKL is addressing. "These fellows--the AlcaLus, the Ciscos, the Nortels--have made optics into a high priesthood," he says. "And it doesn't need to be."

We're heading into the city to meet with David Sinn, chief network engineer in the computing and communications office at the University of Washington, and members of his team. UW is using XKL gear to build high-speed links not just on its Seattle campus but across the Pacific Northwest and as far away as Chicago. It's the first test case of XKL's proposition: a do-it-yourself system connected inexpensively over dark fiber and without proprietary protocols requiring specialized knowledge.

Sinn calls XKL's system "a network engineer's dream DWDM [dense wavelength division multiplexing] box. It's plug and play, it's relatively inexpensive, and you don't have to think about how to make it do what you want it to do."

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When Bosack left Cisco in 1990, he signed a noncompete agreement that kept the fledgling XKL from doing anything in the network market for several years. The company started out making mainframe computers that were replacements for Digital Equipment System 20s (Bosack actually helped build those, too, in the mid-1970s). By 2004, "we discovered that the optics industry was starting to make good" on its promises of low-priced, high-volume components, Michaels says.

That led to a fundamental insight: You shouldn't have to have a Ph.D. in optical physics to run a WDM fiber network, says Bosack. Implementing that idea took another three years, what Michaels refers to as the company's pure research phase.

XKL has survived mainly off Bosack's personal investment. Revenue has started coming in, but Bosack declines to comment on XKL's financial situation or its timeline to profitability. XKL isn't Bosack's only professional commitment; he also manages a group of hedge funds.

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