Cisco becomes a Merchant Silicon Vendor, Launches a Disaggregated Super-Router

Dec 12, 2019 10:44:41 AM

Five years and $1 billion in R&D investment has led to this. Cisco has positioned itself to be a jack-of-all trades routing supplier to network service providers and web-scale data center operators.

Cisco unveiled a versatile ASIC architecture, a disaggregated router series based on that ASIC, a new network operating system designed to drastically lower OpEx, and a commitment to becoming a neutral supplier of optics technology up and down the supply chain.

Cisco as a Merchant Silicon Supplier

Cisco Silicon One, a new P4-programmable ASIC architecture, is designed to work in any router use case, from the access layer to the core. Cisco claims it has the power-efficiency profile of a switch chip, too, which will be an OpEx boon to service providers. More notably, Cisco is going to sell this ASIC directly to customers, and it is contributing the chip to Facebook’s Open Compute project.

This means that Cisco will be competing directly with Broadcom, the network silicon vendor that supplies chips to Cisco and many of its competitors. Broadcom has a near monopoly on merchant network silicon, so white-box networking fans will welcome this move. At Cisco’s formal launch of the ASIC in San Francisco this week, Facebook’s vice president of connectivity, Dan Rabinovitsj, praised the move, signaling the social giant’s interest in using the chip in its own system designs for white box routers.

Based on my conversations with several Cisco executives, I gather that Cisco will be selective with whom it sells these ASICs. The company is clearly interested in selling them to web-scale data center operators who are building their own network hardware. Early in the days of network hardware disaggregation, Cisco continued to try to sell its vertically integrated switches and routers to the likes of Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services, with limited success. Now Cisco recognizes that the best way to tap the budgets of these players is by becoming a supplier of all things large and small, from silicon and optics to bare-metal hardware and network software.

Cisco 8000 Routers and IOS XR7

The Silicon One ASIC is the engine inside Cisco’s new series of 8000 routers, which range from a 10.8 Tbps pizza box to an 18-slot chassis with 260 Tbps of horsepower. Cisco claims the series uses 75% less power than its nearest competitor. These routers are designed to run in any use case, from the access layer to the core and out into the cloud and web-scale data centers.

Microsoft CVP of product management for Microsoft Azure Networking, Yousef Khalidi, said his team is already looking at running its open source NOS, SONIC, on 8000 series routers. Previous Microsoft has disclosed plans to run SONIC on Cisco’s Nexus 9000 series data center switches, so this looks like an expansion of that relationship between Cisco and Microsoft.

IOS XR7 is Cisco’s new NOS for the 8000 series. Cisco claimed the software is designed to support the OpEx pressures that network service providers are struggling with today. It claims the software has a 50% smaller memory footprint than predecessors, a 50% faster boot time, a 40% smaller image size and a 40% faster download time.

AT&T’s SVP of Network Cloud and Infrastructure, Chris Rice, praised Cisco’s disaggregation of the 8000 and IOS XR7. He said that AT&T is looking at running the software on its white box hardware in its network core. He said the software will specifically support his company’s efforts to expand software-defined networking across its infrastructure.

Cisco: An Optics Arms Dealer

Finally, Cisco noted that as network speeds increase from 10 Gbps to 100 Gbps and beyond, the cost of optics is becoming a big share of the overall CapEx spend for network operators. Optics vendors simply can’t commoditize their products at the same pace as silicon vendors and network system designers. This means that the cost of adopting 400 Gbps routers is going be price-prohibitive

Cisco believes it can make a different in the optics world by become a neutral player. First, it’s going to qualify its pluggable optics for white box and commercial competitor’s hardware. This will be especially important to web-scale data center operators who want to buy their optics directly from optics manufacturers, rather than network hardware vendors. It’s unclear if this will drive down the price of optics, but it at least gives customers flexibility.

Where Cisco might make a difference on price is in the optical components business. Cisco said it would start to sell components for optical systems directly to companies that want to build their own chassis-based and pluggable optics. This could change the economics of optics, since Cisco will be able use economies of scale to provide the building blocks of high-bandwidth optics. Smaller component manufacturers have struggled to do this for the industry.

Cisco also signaled its intent, not for the first time, to integrate silicon and optics to break down the barrier to 1 Tbps network speeds and beyond. Cisco noted that as ASICs move beyond 400 Gbps, electrical signaling won’t be viable. Optical signaling will become the only path forward. Cisco plans to leverage its optical business to blaze this trail.

Enterprises Not Directly Impacted, For Now

Although these developments are primarily aimed at service providers and web-scale giants, CIOs should follow Cisco's progress on these various fronts. The ASIC innovation has the potential to spill over into the data center switching segment. Also, Cisco's optics maneuvers could drive down costs for all kinds of network use cases.

And Cisco's increasing comfort with network disaggregation is notable. Until a major supplier like Cisco embraces this movement completely, disaggregation will remain a niche industry, only accessible to hyper-scale organizations like Facebook and AT&T. Cisco claims mainstream enterprise customers simply aren't ready for open networking or simply don't need it. Many of its competitors disagree. It's more about culture and old habits dying hard, these competitors say. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Cisco could move the needle on this, if it ever decides to.

Shamus McGillicuddy

Written by Shamus McGillicuddy

Shamus is the research director for EMA's network management practice. He has more than twelve years of experience in the IT industry as an analyst and journalist. Prior to joining EMA, Shamus was the news director for TechTarget's networking publications. He led the news team's coverage of all networking topics, from the infrastructure layer to the management layer. He has published hundreds of articles about network technology, and he was a founding editor of TechTarget's website SearchSDN.com, a leading resource for technical information and news on the software-defined networking industry.

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