Force10 Networks is forging deeper into the carrier core by adding MPLS to its high end Ethernet routing switches.

The company's ExaScale E-Series switch/routers are currently used in the networks of two of the top five global wholesale carriers as Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) peering nodes. But Force10's ExaScale switch/routers will attain MPLS traffic engineering capabilities to enable the system to perform the same steering and forwarding capabilities as Cisco and Juniper core routers, but at dramatically lower cost, Force10 claims.

The ExaScale system will function as an MPLS Label Switch Router (LSR), a transit router that switches packets based on MPLS labels. This is in contrast to a Label Edge Router, which attaches and detaches MPLS labels before and after receiving packets from LSRs.

MPLS on the ExaScale will allow carriers using the Force10 system to scale core capacity at up to 20% of the cost of traditional core routers, which Force 10 says is about $100,000 per single line-rate 10Gbps Ethernet port. The software, which will be included in updated licences of the ExaScale operating system, is in beta testing with general availability in December.

Force10 will face significant challenges in the core router market, however. Cisco, Juniper and Huawei had a combined 98% share of the $569 million market in the second quarter, according to Dell'Oro Group.

Also, the core router market has shrunk. A year ago, it was an $843.5 million market in Q2; this year, it's 33% lower because service providers have reduced investments in large-scale core projects as capacity has met demand, Dell'Oro notes. The market watcher expects the market to grow less than 5% over the next few quarters.

And vendors that have come into the market long before Force10, namely Avici Systems and Foundry Networks, which was acquired by Brocade, either failed outright or didn't make a significant dent in the market.

Nonetheless, Force10 is undaunted. Company officials say they can carve out a niche by offering a compelling proposition built around Ethernet optimization, both in performance and economics.

This will be especially true, the company says, as the industry migrates to 40G/100G Ethernet. Products are already emerging, and the standard is expected to be ratified in mid-2010.

Also, the growth of multimedia content delivered over the Internet, such as video from Hulu and Youtube, social networking, online gaming and peer-to-peer file sharing and presence applications to fixed and mobile devices is demanding a new generation of low cost, capacity expanding platforms, the company says.

"There's no technical reason you couldn't have a switch [like Force10's ExaScale] in the carrier core just transporting packets," says Zeus Kerravala of the Yankee Group. "But there are legacy router architectures there, and changing operator behavior and architectures is hard. Force10 is going to need to build up a beachhead of clients with a compelling price advantage. And it's not going to start with the Tier 1 [carriers]; it's going to start with the Tier 2s and 3s."