128 Technology Unveils Plan to Fix the Internet With Smart Routers

Today’s Internet is a hot mess. I’m not talking about the content of the Web. I’m talking about the networking infrastructure that runs much of our modern society—from apps to businesses to communications—and how precarious it all is.

It’s safe to say the Internet was not originally designed for its current use. What started as a way to send packets of data between computers has become the backbone of daily life in many parts of the world. Now, with the explosion of mobile and connected devices, Web services, and cloud-based everything, the networking burden has become so complex that some companies struggle to deliver online services reliably and efficiently. And when there’s a problem—think traffic jam or cyber attack—it’s really hard to figure out what happened, and how to fix it.

Indeed, Andy Ory claims the Internet “is at the point where it’s breaking.” He’s the co-founder and chief executive of 128 Technology, a Burlington, MA-based tech startup that’s coming out of stealth today after two years of work.

Ory (pictured) believes the answer lies in smarter routing technologies. Here’s why you might listen to him: he’s also the co-founder and former CEO of Acme Packet, which pioneered networking technologies for telecom and Internet service providers. Acme Packet went public in 2006 and was acquired by Oracle in 2013 for $2.1 billion.

The key, Ory says, is that traditional Internet routers were designed for the flow of data packets. And they worked well for a long time. But now they need to be redesigned for the massive outpouring of applications and services. How?

That’s where 128 Technology gets ambitious—and a little unconventional. First off, routers are moving from hardware to software. That’s a given, and 128 is doing only software, no hardware. But Ory believes the next generation of routers should be “session aware” and “capable of determinism.”

If that sounds like deep philosophical stuff, well, it is (in a way). “Session aware” means a router should have some intelligence and memory built into it. Traditional routers are basically dumb relays—they don’t keep track of incoming and outgoing traffic. That’s why you need things like firewalls, deep packet inspection, load balancing, and other “middle boxes,” as Ory calls them, to regulate traffic. A session-aware router, if implemented properly, could do away with all of those—and save businesses a lot of money, Ory says.

The “determinism” part is perhaps even more intriguing. The way things work now, Internet Protocol packets for a given request are routed through different (and unpredictable) paths and get reassembled upon arrival. If packets are lost, they get resent. But 128’s routers will be able to “select a particular path” for the data and keep track of the flow. That can improve speed and performance, Ory says, and also make it easier to identify and fix problems in the network. (We didn’t go deep on the technology, but I don’t think he’s suggesting that all Internet routing should become deterministic—just in certain cases when it’s advantageous.)

For those familiar with Acme Packet, all of this seems like a natural evolution of Ory’s and his co-founders’ ideas. The question now is who will buy what they’re selling. 128 Technology is going after big enterprise companies and cloud and Internet service providers, Ory says. So, it sounds like a customer base that he and his team—many of whom hail from Acme Packet—already know well.

The bottom line, Ory says, is that 128 Technology is trying to simplify and improve Internet networking in a fundamental way. “Networking doesn’t have to work the way it’s always worked. And you don’t have to throw anything away,” he says.

At the same time, there’s plenty of room for other networking approaches that are complementary. “We’re not going to be the only technology, and we’re not going to solve every problem,” Ory says. “But we have to convince people we’re right.”

128 Technology, which has 65 employees, has raised $36 million in venture funding. Its investors include G20 Ventures. A spokeswoman declined to disclose other investors, and said that employees own 78 percent of the company.

Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, F5 Networks, and Riverbed Technology are some of the big, entrenched companies in the field of networking. Local players working on complementary approaches in networking and monitoring include Plexxi, Rift.io, SevOne, AppNeta, and Dynatrace.

Photo credit: Ryuji Suzuki, Beaupix

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