Cisco Unveils the HFR
Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) unveiled its next-generation core router today, a move that some analysts believe could herald the overhaul of Cisco's entire product line, even down to enterprise boxes (see Cisco Launches HFR).
The long-awaited HFR is a multichassis "terabit" router meant to compete with boxes from Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7), Chiaro Networks Inc., Hyperchip Inc., Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR), and Procket Networks Inc.
After more than four years in development, the box is making its debut today under its real name: the Carrier Routing System, or CRS-1 (no word on whether rapper KRS-ONE has been tapped as a spokesman).
The CRS-1 truly is huge and fast, with a capacity of 640 Gbit/s in a 7-foot rack. It scales to 72 shelves rather than the 18 reported by sources, for an unreal 46 Tbit/s maximum capacity, or 1,152 OC768 ports. (Cisco reports this as 92 Tbit/s, using its usual convention of counting ingress and egress capacity separately.)
But CRS-1 wasn't intended to be just a big router, says Mike Volpi, senior VP and general manager of Cisco's Routing Technology Group. Rather, Cisco wanted to start afresh to build an IP box that would suit telecom carriers' needs for years to come. The software is engineered to produce the "permanent and continuous operation" demanded in the voice network, Volpi says. "It's designed to be Class 5-like in its carrier manageability."
Most significantly, the CRS-1 deviates from Cisco's Internetwork Operating System (IOS), the software that runs on nearly all its platforms. The new software is called IOS XR, but it's been built from scratch. The transition is analogous to Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) moving from DOS-based operating systems to Windows NT, says analyst Stephen Kamman of CIBC World Markets.
Just as NT did, IOS XR could begin trickling down to lower-level systems, eventually permeating Cisco's entire portfolio, including edge and enterprise boxes. "The question is how quickly they can push that software through the product line," Kamman says.
Analyst Debra Mielke of Treillage Network Strategies Inc. notes that the amount of firepower behind CRS-1 -- including the involvement of Volpi and chief development officer Mario Mazzola -- indicates Cisco has plans going beyond this one box. "I absolutely believe that all the innovation in [the CRS-1] will go throughout the product set," she says. "They wouldn't have put all that money into [the technology] unless they were going to use it for something much more."
Kamman believes the first step will be the "Son of HFR" box, a half-sized CRS-1 intended to replace the aging GSR 12000 line (see Sources: Cisco Building 'Son of HFR'). Cisco officials won't acknowledge the half-sized CRS-1; Volpi says only that future enhancements to the platform are planned.
Critics point out that the new OS could take years to stabilize. That would put the HFR at an apparent disadvantage against, say, Juniper's T640 routers, which run that company's established JunOS operating system. "[The CSR-1 is] an interesting departure from IOS. There's the potential for [Cisco] to create more problems with their customer base," says Karen Livoli, senior product marketing manager at Juniper.
Cisco needed to make the software change someday, even if it's painful, analysts say. Because it's not modular, IOS is a step behind JunOS and other software -- something IOS XR is intended to correct (see Cisco's HFR Gets Mod).
Moreover, Cisco keeps adding to IOS piecemeal, as if it were the world's largest ball of twine. "Imagine five years from now, if they hadn't built this new software and they tried to keep IOS going. That thing would be a beast," Kamman says.
IOS XR helps Cisco catch up in areas such as hot upgrades of software and separation of control, data, and management planes. The software is based on a kernel licensed from QNX Software Systems, but tailored for the job. "We have made some pretty substantial modifications to [the QNX code] that are Cisco proprietary," Volpi says.
In terms of features, it appears IOS-XR will start incomplete, possibly reflecting the difficulty of rebuilding an entire router's worth of software. Cisco officials haven't given specifics, but it appears several features, such as IPv6 multicast and VPN support, will be missing from the initial CRS-1 release. Cisco officials say they're comfortable with the feature set, given the CRS-1's initial markets; almost nobody needs IPv6 multicast yet, and VPN software is required at the edge, not at the core, Volpi notes.
Cisco also has peppered the CRS-1 with usability features designed to make life easier for equipment operators. For example, Treillage's Mielke notes it's got flat cables, instead of the usual round ones -- a custom design that contributes to the $450,000 price tag but keeps the mass of cables manageable. No sign of a cup holder yet.
In all, it's the operational side that got the emphasis, Volpi says, noting that Cisco's engineers "did not take the macho approach of putting the most density in a half-rack chassis."
Apparently not. The CRS-1 takes a full 7-foot rack to provide 640 Gbit/s of throughput, which is on a par with the Juniper T640 (320 Gbit/s per half-rack) but lags Procket's PRO/8812 (480 Gbit/s per half-rack). As for other specifications, the CRS-1 will indeed be based on 40-Gbit/s slots -- a first for Cisco -- with an OC768c interface available. Its multistaged switch fabric is based, not on a Clos architecture, but on another well known structure called a Benes architecture.
General availability is set for July, and at least four carriers have CRS-1s running in beta tests: Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), MCI Inc. (Nasdaq: WCOEQ, MCWEQ), NTT Communications Corp., and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON). Sources have frequently cited Sprint as a beta tester (see Cisco Sprints Ahead With HFR).
It appears only a chosen few carriers have gotten a look at the CRS-1. The system hasn't shown up -- other than in PowerPoint form -- to compete for any of the T640's 60 design wins so far, Juniper's Livoli says: "None of our customers have yet seen it."
Volpi says the CRS-1 project started four-and-a-half years ago. The system was developed internally, with only one acquisition -- Growth Networks -- making a contribution. "Growth Networks people built the switch fabric, although the fabric has nothing to do with the Growth Networks fabric."
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading