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October 28, 2008

Darkstrand Gives NLR the Business

Michael Feldman

Access to National LambdaRail’s high-speed optical fiber network will soon be available for commercial businesses (and just in time for the biggest recession in decades). As I wrote in Tuesday’s feature story, half the capacity of the system has been set aside for commercial use and will start servicing those users early in 2009.

Darkstrand is the company that won the rights to broker the NLR capacity and is busily gathering customers. I spoke with Darkstrand CEO Michael Stein, who told me he is seeing a lot of early interest from some big-name firms in media, manufacturing, and financial services. While he couldn’t commit to any specific companies, he expects to roll out the first 3 or 4 customers in January.

The second part of the story is that Darkstrand will also manage technology transfers between the NLR-affiliated national labs/universities and businesses. As I mentioned in the article, this may seem like an odd combo, but taking advantage of high-speed networks often revolves around tools and workflows unfamiliar to businesses. And it certainly fits into the Council on Competitiveness’ notion of an “enabling function” that bridges industries with HPC technologies.

Whether Darkstrand is up to the task remains to be seen, but the ecosystem approach seems like a natural way to build synergies. (And with a super-hero name like Darkstrand, how could they fail?) A more skeptical view of this business model is elaborated by Stacey Higginbotham at the New York Times, who writes that network access and commercialization technologies are distinct products:

In theory, it’s neat. But Darkstrand doesn’t have an exclusive agreement to get technology out of national labs, and the idea of it as a pre-vetted commercialization partner doesn’t mean much when the actual commercialization gets under way. Many companies have existing development efforts at national labs, and there are many other venture capitalists and IP brokers who also offer similar services.

To be sure, HPC service brokers do exist, but most are part of the service structure of a particular OEM like HP or IBM. Bob Graybill’s new firm, Nimbus Services, which we highlighted in a recent article, is a company that provides a vendor-neutral approach and they’re definitely worth keeping an eye on. According Stein, Darkstrand’s offerings could dovetail nicely with Nimbus, which provides a business-to-business brokerage model for compute cycles, software and high-end expertise.

While the commercialization services side of the Darkstrand offering may be uncharted territory, leasing the multi-gigabit pipes seems like a more straightforward business. Here Stein’s strategy is to sign up some marquee customers in various verticals — media, financial services, manufacturing, and biotech. If those customers can exploit the advantages of NLR’s bandwidth, their competitors are sure to follow.

The best case scenario for Darkstrand is that NLR becomes the network platform of choice for commercial HPC and related businesses and as a result of the influx of revenue, its footprint becomes even larger and attracts even more customers. Since network consortium already has plans to jump to 40 Gbps pipes in 2009 and 100 Gbps a few years later, the bandwidth should remain in sync or slightly ahead of most commercial demand. With all the high-end infrastructure in place, NLR could became the foundation of a cloud computing platform for HPC.