Increasing compatibility and avoiding lock-in

17th February 2016
Joe Bush

ProLabs, a provider of compatible optical infrastructure equipment, has centralised its operations with the opening of its new integrated facility in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. At the launch event held in January, Electronic Specifier Design Editor Joe Bush found out more about the company’s commitment to providing compatibility and interoperability.

Most companies purchasing network infrastructure and connectivity products still source from the main OEMs. However, this can prove highly restrictive as the lack of compatibility of these products often results in the customer being locked-in to that individual vendor. As such ProLabs’ primary focus is to offer its customers a greater choice by teaching them about compatibles, as CEO Nick Moglia highlighted: “The products we sell were originally sold by the likes of Cisco, HP, IBM etc. We offer a compatible alternative to our customers and there’s a massive opportunity for us, as most don’t realise that they can buy products that have the same functionality, often at higher quality and that offer significant savings compared to the main OEM vendors. We offer customers that freedom of being able to break that link with the vendors.”

Christian Rookes VP of Product Management at ProLabs, added that the network and connectivity products that are crucial to the infrastructure of telecommunications companies, data centres and fortune 500 companies etc feature intelligence that’s been used and abused by the OEM system manufacturers to allow them to lock-in their customers. So, compatibility is the key to these products working correctly in their target equipment.

What does compatibility mean?

Rookes commented: “The OEMs would typically design and develop a switch for example – essentially a piece of networking equipment designed to route data between offices, buildings, towns, countries etc – that have ports where you can put in an optical transceiver or copper transceiver and match the transceiver with the network equipment, depending on the application. So, what the OEMs do is develop the switch and use a contract manufacturer to make that part, and they would specify to their suppliers (which are often in China) what sort of transceiver product they wanted.

“On purchase they give the customer a code for the transceiver and if the switch reads the transceiver without the code it will not work in that switch. That stops the route to market where the transceiver manufacturers can sell their products directly to the end customer. That means the customer is locked-in to the OEM and as a consequence, those transceivers will be sold to that customer at an inflated price. What we’re about is providing compatibles - leading to customer independence. To do that we provide an interoperable solution. That of course is something that the OEMs don’t want us to do, but the customer wants choice.”

The fact is that a complete solution from an OEM (obviously their preferred option), probably won’t be the best answer to achieve optimal performance from a given application and a mixture of equipment from different vendors will be required. Indeed, in reality, complete solutions from a single vendor in applications such as data centres, for example, are rare. ProLabs produce its transceivers by applying a code onto them which makes them interoperable with different vendors’ equipment – at around 70% of the OEM list price cost.

It’s all above board

Moglia went on to highlight that feedback from many of ProLabs’ customers has revealed that OEMs have tried to put them off of investing compatibles, stating that using them would invalidate the rest of their estate (indeed some customers are even under the erroneous impression that compatibles are illegal)! He commented: “Although they would never put anything in writing, OEMs definitely try and scare customers into buying their own products - for obvious reasons. Our job is one of an ongoing education process to tell customers that buying compatibles is ok.”

This doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Some companies and organisations will have many different networks. And quite often they will buy a variety of equipment from many different manufacturers – some of which will have been around for a long time, acquired other companies and would have merged etc, so their networks could well be quite complicated and contain equipment from many vendors, some of which would possibly be obsolete.

Rookes added: “If those companies want to add more capacity they’ll have to approach the different vendors involved and pay an awful lot of money for each of their transceivers or connectivity products – indeed, they may not be able to acquire their desired product because the OEM may not actually exist anymore.

“In that instance they can come to a company like ProLabs to get everything as a one-stop-shop which will be 100% compatible. We can offer a much wider range of products than any of the OEMs can individually and we’ll also have the capability to support legacy systems.”

Closing the OEM technology gap

The compatibles market is catching up in terms of product releases to the timescales of the OEMs selling the original system equipment. In the past, it could take a product around two years for another vendor to come out with a compatible version. However, the formation of a number of technology partnerships with some global optical transceiver vendors has enabled ProLabs to begin introducing products to market much more quickly.

Rookes continued: “In a data centre for example, there will be lots of different vendor equipment being used. What we’re able to do with our coding capability is provide what we call multi-vendor direct attach cables or active optical cables. These allow each end of the cable to be coded independently for the target switch. We also offer multi-code transceivers, so if a customer is using three different equipment manufacturers, they can buy one transceiver from us that will work in all of them. If you come to us, with our knowledge of how much coding is required for each transceiver, we’ll be able to tell you whether it’s possible to combine vendors together.

Above: ProLabs' new lab facility

“Over time we’ve built-up knowledge of all the different vendor equipment codes and the way they operate. So we buy in the raw product i.e. the blank transceiver, and then programme the memory into that device to be compatible with the target vendor. Then we have a representation of that system in the lab, we plug it in, verify that it works, check all the diagnostic monitoring functions on the transceivers, then finally, before it ships, we’ll perform an optical port and vision inspection.

“This is a real differentiator between what we’re doing and what you’ll find in the compatibles market space. Some people will literally buy in from China and ship it out again, without knowing whether it’s working or not. This kind of applied quality and applied checking means we can engage with some very large telecoms companies, which is not something that the compatibles market can do in general. So the ability to test these multi-vendor and multi-code devices not only means we can say to our customers that we can build a direct attached cable that will connect to two different vendors, but we can test that in our facility and know that it works. So this capability allows us to address some very sophisticated customers.”

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