While optical networking may not be the sexiest aspect of today's networks, it's one of the most vital. LightRiver has carved out a meaningful niche in the optical networking space by bringing multi-vendor software automation to the plumbing of networks.
"They're an interesting company and I've followed them for a while now," said Heavy Reading's Sterling Perrin, principal analyst for optical networking and transport. "Their niche is software automation for optical network and they're really largely focused on legacy optical networks and existing networks that are in place, which is an important area.
"Automation is just a huge trend and it's is being applied to other parts of networks and other systems. Optical networks should play a part in that automation. Service providers are better off if they can automate their networks, and if they're automating other higher layer networks and ignoring the optical networks they're limited."
LightRiver, which was founded in 1998, added a key element to its roster in 2017 when it bought a company called Unique Computer. Unique Computer provided the foundation for LightRiver's netFLEX software automation technology.
According to LightRiver COO Travis Ewert, netFLEX is an optical domain controller within a software-defined networking (SDN) reference model. It was designed for end-to-end network and service automation where real-time inventory, actionable analytics, activation and configuration management provide a standardized control layer. It provides full lifecycle automation of multi-vendor, multi-technology, and multi-generation transport networks.
According to Ewert, netFLEX has been deployed by some of the FANG companies, large data and collocation companies, two of the top three Tier 1 service providers in North America, several Tier 2 service providers, and fiber companies. Due to its customer base, LightRiver was deemed as an essential vendor during the coronavirus pandemic.
"Everything we do is from an automation perspective. We build it in a way where it can it can be a standalone web service API, or integration in a single entity, or the collection of an entity," said Ewert, who formerly worked at CenturyLink, Level 3 and tw telecom. "The service providers can give their customers the ability to go in and look at capacity."
Perrin said that multi-vendor integration across optical networks has been a hard nut to crack. LightRiver partners with other optical companies including Ciena, Infinera, Fujitsu and Nokia. LightRiver competes against companies such as Sedona Networks and Ontology Systems, the latter of which was bought by Exfo three years ago.
"The optical networks are largely analog systems," Perrin said. "Optics has always been very closed and proprietary. Because of these analog systems, trying to automate something that's not just the vendors' own equipment is difficult. That's basically LightRiver's niche—multi-vendor automation of optical networks, including existing legacy optical systems.
"There are some very unique things that that LightRiver is doing for optics that other companies just don't seem to be able to crack."
For network and service validation, LightRiver enables the testing, measurement and build of networks through its iFBN (intelligent Factory Built Network). With iFBN, LightRiver is able to build customer networks in its factory that are pre-conditioned with automation.
"I think the advantage we have is we're in there architecting, engineering and designing and deploying some of the largest networks on the planet across all of the main suppliers," Ewert said. "What we've learned there for automation across multi-vendor systems, I don't see anybody attempting to do that at all."
Ewert said working with iFBN allows service providers to test and validate different approaches in LightRiver's labs, which also speeds up the development cycle.
"We can immediately say 'Hey, here's three different options, three different architectures of designs we'd recommend,'" Ewert said. "We could put those together, test them head-to-head in the lab in the next couple of weeks, and they can make a decision in no time.
"We've literally done that on a regular basis for some of the FANG guys. We will help them test that out, validate that out and then a lot of times we get the business on the deployment side as well."
After building up trust with some of its top customers, Ewert said LightRiver was able to gain additional work during the coronavirus pandemic by going into customer locations, such as data centers, where employees had been sent home to work.
"We've actually seen an uptick on some of the services work because we're close enough partners with these folks where they just let us do more while we were there, which was a good thing," he said. "We've got a few good opportunities that are moving pretty well and faster than normal sales cycle. But I do think across the board, folks are holding on the cash a little tighter, you know, from the operator side of things."
Ewert said LightRiver was able to do virtual tours of its labs during the coronavirus pandemic, which included video from drones.
"We actually just did a massive virtual proof of concept (POC) where we had two or three Tier 1 strategic suppliers and a main customer prospect," Ewert said. "They even brought in some of their customers to see the multi-vendor end-to-end demo with a real-time drone video of tour of the lab.
"For the first time ever, we've done we've done some virtual POCs where we're able to do this for people and no one had to get on a plane."
Perrin said he has spoken to LightRiver about branching out of automation in optics to automaton across Layer 2 and Layer 3.
"They do have a good opportunity to accelerate automation in the network," Perrin said. "Ultimately, optics is limited if that's where you stay. At some point, although it's a long way off, they kind of run their course with legacy systems. But at this point, I think this is a pretty fertile area. There's a massive, massive installed bases of SONET equipment and old DWDM systems.
"There are very important things that can be done today with this type of automation software that doesn't have anything to do with robotics and flying cars or drones. Understanding the full inventory for your massive optical network of 40 years of operation is pretty important."