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Announcement signals more flexibility in consumption models for routing technology  

On December 11, 2019, Cisco unveiled its strategy for helping service providers to build the networks that will meet the coming challenges and opportunities associated with mass adoption of 5G, IoT and unrelenting growth in bandwidth demand. According to Cisco, the solution lies in bringing together the right routing silicon, high-performance systems, optimized software and optics. In support of these pillars, Cisco announced its new Silicon ONE routing silicon family, Cisco 8000 series routers, and Cisco IOS XR7 software. The company also re-confirmed the role that its recent Luxtera and Acacia acquisitions would play in the evolution of Cisco’s routing & switching portfolio. 

Will this announcement create the “internet of the future” as Cisco alluded to in its marketing launch? That is difficult to quantify, but these new capabilities will certainly help ensure that the network behind the internet can continue to scale to meet demand with the requisite generational improvements in cost-per-bit and reduced power consumption. What is also more aligned with future evolution is a challenge to the notion that the traditional router vendors will continue to sell fully integrated solutions alone. With this announcement, Cisco signals its intent to deliver its routing technology to its customers in the manner that they wish to consume it—be it silicon, systems, software, or an integrated combination of the three. 

Silicon ONE takes center stage 

At the heart of Cisco’s announcement was the unveiling of its new portfolio of routing silicon dubbed Silicon ONE. As a technology optimized to deliver routing performance with switching efficiency, Silicon ONE is envisioned to be a family of chips that can be programmed to meet high-performance routing requirements of service providers and Internet Content Providers (ICPs.) The Q100 chip is the first of the Silicon ONE family, supporting 10.8Tb/s of performance, deep buffers, global-scale routing tables; it is also P4 programmable. As part of the concept of “one” chip to address many applications, the Q100 can be programmed for use in chassis-based systems as the routing Network processor Unit (NPU) on line cards or as the switch fabric chip for the backplane. It can also be used in fixed systems as a system-on-a-chip. 

In looking at routing silicon design over the past decade, different chipsets have emerged to address difference applications. There has always been a trade-off in design for NPUs optimized for pure packet-processing performance vs NPUs optimized for the additional processing required for handling a large number of service flows with QoS requirements – capabilities typically required in edge routers supporting large scale access control lists (ACLs) key in supporting multiple concurrent clients, BNG, packet core, or business services applications. Services-oriented silicon requires additional buffers and specialized memory. This silicon has typically been the domain of the SP router specialists – Nokia with its FP-series chips, Juniper with its Trio silicon and latest Penta silicon, Huawei with its Solar chipset family. Cisco, now on its 4th generation of in-house silicon (Lightspeed) for its ASR 9K series edge routers. Successive generations of silicon design have greatly improved the balance of performance and services, but the area has remained the domain of the router specialists. 

The “traditional” routing silicon market began to change in 2010 when Broadcom completed its acquisition of start-up chipmaker Dune Networks. Dune’s technology was the basis for the highly popular Broadcom Jericho series of chips—the first merchant-based silicon to challenge the in-house silicon design with a solution that could support both services and performance at scale. This technology hit a sweet spot in platforms optimized to meet the needs of ICP cloud-edge applications (e.g., Cisco NCS 5500, Nokia 7250 IXR, Arista 7500R), but also as a foundation for the nascent white box router platform market from vendors, including EdgeCore and Delta.  

Flash forward to Cisco’s Silicon ONE announcement: This was a culmination of a five-year design effort that came to Cisco through the $320M acquisition of Leaba Semiconductor in 2016. Of note, Leaba’s CEO and co-founder was none other than Eyal Dagan, who was CEO and co-founder of Dune Networks, and is now Cisco’s SVP in charge of silicon development. In many ways, this leads to a conclusion that Silicon ONE is an intellectual “heir” and next-gen evolution of the Jericho family of silicon. Combine this with Cisco’s intent to make this available to the market as a stand-alone product, and the merchant silicon market has just become very interesting. Broadcom will have two other viable competitors in this specialized market: Intel through its acquisition of Barefoot Networks and the P4-programmable Tofino NPUs, and now Cisco with Silicon ONE. 

While pitched as one silicon solution to support a wide range of applications, Cisco did confirm that Silicon ONE would not be used in its ASR 9K edge router portfolio; development there would continue separately. While there has been evolution of silicon to support more services capability, there remains a niche for services-specialized routing silicon. All the top vendors in the routing market have confirmed their commitment to continue development in this area. 

Platforms, software, and optics round out Cisco’s routing portfolio evolution 

While there was a big focus on the new silicon in this launch, Cisco also announced updates in platforms, software, and optics: 

  • Cisco’s new 8000 series portfolio is based on Silicon ONE technology and is positioned as the industry’s first set of platforms optimized for not just 400GE, but for successive generations of client interfaces, including 800GE and beyond. The family will consist of both SP-oriented modular chassis-based systems and cloud-oriented fixed chassis systems. The modular systems include 8-slot, 12-slot, and 18-slot variants supporting from 57 Tb/s through a massive 260 Tb/s of capacity. Two fixed-chassis variants were announced, both supporting 10.8Tb/s each, with different client- and network-side port configurations. 

  • Cisco launched the next rev of its IOS XR software, the IOS XR7. Significant enhancements have been made to this release, including a major rewrite to make it more “cloud-enhanced.” The company claims the new release takes 50% less memory, and as a result improves boot times by 50%. The image size also has been reduced significantly, reducing the amount of memory required to run the load. IOS XR7 supports NETCONF/YANG APIs and models, in addition to providing support for hosting third-party applications. Simplified operations and additional security features were also highlighted as new capabilities. 

  •  On the optics front, nothing new was announced, but Cisco did highlight the role of its Luxtera and Acacia acquisitions. Luxtera brings wafer-scale manufacturing expertise, key to the development of silicon photonics-based client-side optics. The company also brings critical knowledge and capability to support co-packaging of optics with ASICs, a critical design vector in play for the future evolution of high-speed ASICs and platforms. The Acacia acquisition has not yet closed, so there was very little new information on offer there, other than confirming the role that Acacia’s technology will play in pluggable coherent optics, including 400ZR, which will provide new flexibility in IP + optical network designs. 


A step toward new business models 

Despite the ambitious objective of “redefining the Internet”—which was a bit ironic as the Internet will not be the actual network used to deliver 5G services—what did stand out in the announcement was the intent to enable flexible consumption of these new products and technologies. The range of this flexibility was highlighted as Cisco invited an all-star customer panel to share how Cisco was helping it achieve their technology and business objectives.  

Comcast was highlighted as a customer that would be consuming Cisco’s next-gen routing in the more traditional model of integrated silicon, systems, and software systems. AT&T was highlighted for its plans to deploy IOS XR7 in several (unnamed) network applications as stand-alone software on white box platforms. Facebook will be a lead client for Silicon ONE chipsets, and Microsoft is planning to deploy Cisco hardware with SONiC open-source networking software. 

The bottom line 

This was an important announcement for the industry with Cisco signaling its continued commitment to the service provider market and its intent to further enhance its high-performance routing solutions for the webscale ICP “cloud” market. This announcement also takes things one step further for Cisco—it confirms that the company is ready to diversify how it delivers its technology to market—and that it is prepared to play as a silicon supplier, disaggregated hardware provider, and stand-alone routing software supplier.  

For all the start-ups in this space, please take note: The oft-quoted marketing differentiator vs. Cisco as an integrated routing solutions provider now needs to be retired. The 50,000-pound gorilla in this market has now served notice it is ready to compete in the new world order of more open and disaggregated networking solutions.