Its more than 25 years since Texas Instruments set up its development centre in Bangalore, heralding a trend of top technology companies locating R&D and engineering centres in India. While there have been occasional stories of these Indian centres leading product development activities for new products, we are beginning to see a jump in sophistication of these efforts.
Cisco’s ASR 901 Cell Site Router that won the Nasscom Innovation Award 2012 for New Technology Advancement yesterday is a good example of this trend. Cisco set up its Engineering Centre in India in 1998. More than 640 patent applications have been filed since then, and more than 370 patents granted. But when the ASR 901 was launched in October 2011, it was the first product conceived, developed and launched entirely from India. Centered around the ASR 901 and related products is the Provider Access Business Unit, the first full-fledged BU being run from India with complete profit and loss responsibility for this product line.
Products like the ASR 901 router seek to straddle seemingly irreconcilable requirements. The ASR 901, for example, simultaneously aims to be low cost and feature rich. On the one hand, the product is designed to meet the critical requirements of telecom companies in developing countries – low up-front capital costs as well as operating expenses; protection of existing investments in earlier technologies and standards like 2G; ability to maintain high reliability levels in harsh operating environments; and rapid scalability. On the other, the product is designed to provide the next generation of cell site router technology like 4G and features like multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) - a mechanism in high-performance telecommunications networks that directs data from one network node to the next based on short path labels rather than long network addresses, avoiding complex lookups in a routing table (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiprotocol_Label_Switching ), and thereby making the network more efficient.
According to Cisco, there are four distinctive features of the development of the ASR 901:
The ASR 901 is being tried out by telcos all over the world. Given the advanced features and the higher propensity of companies in the developed world to try out new technologies, it’s not surprising that the first customers are from there. But it has features that make it attractive to telcos from emerging markets as well, and adoption should follow.
Innovation from India can be visible in the global end-product market, meet the latest technological standards, and yet be rugged, versatile and cost-effective for emerging country markets. Cisco’s ASR 901 shows that this is possible.
The case for building telecom products out of India is clear. While capital expenditure on telecom is increasing at the rate of 15% per year in the developing world, the growth rate in the developed world is only half of this. India has been, in recent years, one of the fastest growing telecom markets in the world. India also has some of the largest telecom companies with Airtel, Vodafone and Reliance each having more than 100 million subscribers.
- The first is frugality of the innovation process. Using specially-designed or custom-built components can enhance performance but comes at a cost. Instead, in the case of its power module, the ASR 901 team modified an off-the-shelf power module that was both compact and low cost. The ASR 901 is economical in its use of power.
- The second is advances in the design of the timing architecture. The ASR 901 team developed an optimised precision time protocol (PTP) system based on the IEEE 1588v2 standard by going back to the standards, re-architecting the PTP software stack, and using a mixture of experimental and analytical techniques to optimise performance. PTP is a protocol that is used to synchronise clocks across a computer network (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precision_Time_Protocol ) and improve the accuracy and efficiency of the network.
- The third is the advanced Internet Protocol (IP) and MPLS feature set. The ASR 901 allows the use of both IP and TDM, thus straddling both old and new technologies.
- The fourth is the development of a complex and sophisticated product in an ecosystem that lacks the ideal features to support such development. Cisco drew on its global network, re-locating senior personnel from its US offices to the India engineering centre to fill capability gaps. The product enabled building local capabilities – e.g., qualification and compliance of the product with different geographies was done from here, thus building local familiarity with such processes. Cisco worked closely with some of its Indian partners to develop the product – this helped launch the product in October 2011 though development started only in June 2010.