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Nokia Heralds Fastest Network Processor Ever

Iain Morris
6/14/2017
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Nokia is heralding a major technological breakthrough with a new routing platform and network processor whose capabilities seem to go far beyond those of rival products or anything that it currently sells.

Launched to considerable fanfare earlier today at a glitzy event in San Francisco, the IP routing products have been designed to support the rapidly growing volumes of Internet traffic that its traditional service provider customers are seeing. (See Nokia Unleashes Its FP4 Chip for IP Routing.)

Perhaps more importantly, the eagerly anticipated kit is also aimed at web-scale giants such as Amazon Web Services Inc. and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), which Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) is targeting as part of its drive into vertical markets "adjacent" to but outside the telco market. (See Nokia to Create Standalone Software Biz, Target New Verticals and Nokia's Suri Promises IP Routing Innovation.)

Nokia is forecasting a sluggish rate of growth in its main addressable market over the next five years and is looking to new customer groups for a sales boost.

Underpinning the routing platform is the FP4 network processor, a successor to the FP3 chipset that was such a big success for Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), which Nokia bought in a €15.6 billion (USD $17.5 billion) deal in early 2016.

The Finnish company describes the FP4 as the world's first 2.4Tbit/s processor and says it is six times more powerful than anything else in the market.

Nokia appears to have skipped a couple of design generations to produce the FP4, moving straight from the 40nm silicon on which the FP3 was based to a 16nm design.

"The chips announced by other vendors in the last couple of years have made trade-offs and we decided that we needed to wait and skip a few technologies," said Nokia's Manish Gulyani. "We've skipped 28nm and 22nm and gone to 16nm and that is why we are able to get a capacity increase without giving up any capability."

By taking advantage of this capability, a new 7750 series of routers will be able to support a 144Tbit/s configuration in a single shelf, says Nokia.

It is also introducing a 7950 "petabit-class" router that it claims will be the world's highest capacity router to date.

The products are also intended to be more "programmable" than previous upgrades and to give service providers greater insight into traffic patterns on the network and more awareness of security threats.

"Some web-scale players have great insight into traffic patterns and are using techniques to manage traffic effectively," said Basil Alwan, the president of Nokia's IP and optical networks division. "Service provider networks are more opaque at the moment and there is not a lot of insight into how traffic is flowing."

While the processor has evidently been in the Alcatel-Lucent works for a long time, the introduction of those particular capabilities owes much to Nokia's takeover of analytics company Deepfield in late 2016.

"That [takeover] really excited me because the challenge we face is to do with insight," said Neil McRae, the chief architect of UK telco incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), who appeared eager to get his hands on the latest innovations during Nokia's San Francisco event. "[Without that] it is like driving a car blindfolded."

Steve Vogelsang, Nokia's chief technology officer of IP and optical networks, says that product development was largely driven by the requirements of the web-scale giants, which Nokia's engineers appear to have engaged with closely in designing the new kit.

There's more to life than white boxes
But there is skepticism that Nokia will be able to make inroads into the web-scale market with its proprietary approach, with some analysts suggesting the move is at odds with the current focus on virtualization and white box networking.

"It's a huge investment from an engineering point of view," says Simon Stanley, a principal consultant at Earlswood Marketing and analyst at large for the Heavy Reading market-research group. "And virtualization changes the game because you are not building big core router boxes but having virtual routers that are running commodity hardware, in theory."


For more NFV-related coverage and insights, check out our dedicated NFV content channel here on Light Reading.


Alwan said that Nokia was also building products on merchant silicon while insisting that white box networking was not the "whole picture."

"You can put features on an x86 processor and that is capable enough for some network roles, but if you are dealing with heavy traffic then NFV does not really play because of the economics," he said.

BT's McRae agreed: "With a virtual router we can push new apps to customer premises, and an x86 works perfectly, but if you are routing terabits of video traffic then x86 is not going to cut it."

Analysts including Stanley have also speculated on the possibility of Nokia becoming a silicon supplier and making the FP4 available to other vendors.

Such a development would mark a radical break with past practice but other companies in the telecom equipment market have taken similarly dramatic steps in recent months, notes Stanley.

"Ciena has taken its solution and made it available to other vendors, which is something they would never historically have done," he says. "They see advantages in having it used by other people."

The Nokia routing products are not due to begin shipping until the fourth quarter of this year but Vogelsang and Gulyani say there is already a lot of customer interest among both telcos and web-scale players.

Vogelsang would not divulge any growth forecasts for the IP and optical networks business but said he expected the new products to have a positive impact on profitability.

"We have silicon that has six times the capacity of the previous generation and routers that have two to three times the capacity of rivals," he said. "Anytime you get a lead, it is a net positive."

Nokia blamed "softness" in the IP routing market for a 13% year-on-year fall in revenues at the business in the first quarter, to about €621 million ($695 million).

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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