Photonics Fire Up Radical Core Router Startup
Core router startups have been a rare breed since the glory days of Procket and Avici, but now a new one has emerged: Compass-EOS is hoping to move the needle (geddit?) by using on-chip photonics to produce a more compact system.
"We believe current technologies have reached a plateau. Everybody understands that. When you're talking about the petabit age, everybody will be using such technologies," says Asaf Somekh, Compass-EOS's vice president of marketing.
The router in question, the r10004, is being announced for the first time on Tuesday. It's an 800Gbit/s router (1.6Tbit/s, if you count both input and output traffic), shipping with only two types of line cards so far: with two ports of 100 Gbit/s or 20 ports of 10 Gbit/s.
The routers have been shipping since late 2012, and Somekh was carrying a sample of the company's pride-and-joy ASIC, based on a technology named icPhotonics, at Mobile World Congress last week.
Asaf Somekh, taking an outdoors break at Mobile World Congress.
What's particularly interesting is that Compass-EOS's router is already running live traffic, which means the startup has gotten further than many of the core-router startups of the early 2000s. (See The Core Was Rotten for Startups.)
It's being used by a U.S. cable operator at the junction between the cable network and a content delivery network (CDN), Somekh says.
That's not a core core job, but it's where a startup has to, well, start before it can win the hearts of service providers. Early target markets will be Internet peering points and some aggregation networks, Somekh says.
Getting to the core
The company's founder and president, Michael Laor, worked at a Cisco Systems Inc. R&D center in Israel in 2004 when he decided to pursue a more compact architecture for a core router. This was the time when Cisco was releasing the CRS-1, formerly called the "huge effin' router" internally -- a full-rack beast that Cisco bragged could be linked in a group of 72.
Laor realized his ideas for radicalizing the router would never fly at Cisco, Somekh says, so he left the company to build a next-generation router with his own outfit.
It's already part of Compass-EOS folklore that Laor failed four times, primarily due to the limitations of the electronics. High-speed signals can only travel so far on a circuit board, and pushing the distance limits means generating more heat. The numbers weren't adding up.
Laor decided to pursue on-chip optics after teaming up with Michael Mesh, who had participated in the optical bubble as a member of PacketLight Networks. (You can see him quoted in this DWDM report from 2000.) They formed Compass-EOS in 2006, and Mesh is still with the company as chief scientist.
The icPhotonics chip is built around a matrix of 168 VCSELs -- each capable of transmitting at 8 Gbit/s for a total theoretical limit of 1.3 Tbit/s -- and a corresponding bank of photodiodes. Compass-EOS says it uses silicon photonics inside the chip, as well as some proprietary and not-so-easily-invented techniques that allow the VCSELs to sit properly above the rest of the chip.
Inside the r10004, there's no midplane, no backplane and no switch fabric. Line cards are connected by the optical interconnect into a full mesh.
That not only shrinks the router and lowers its power requirements -- Compass-EOS claims the r10004 is one-third the size of a comparable core router -- but also simplifies the router. Compass-EOS claims it's simpler to do multichassis routing, for example.
Core routers from Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and Juniper Networks Inc. can connect multiple boxes to act as one router. But to do it for more than two routers takes an additional box, a rack that serves solely as a cross-connect.
Compass-EOS claims it can eliminate that step and just keep throwing routers at the problem, so to speak. Each router treats neighboring Compass-EOS routers as if they were its own line cards.
There's a distance limitation, of course: about 200 meters. That's still long enough that two routers, working in conjunction, can be on different floors of a building. (There's at least one prospective customer that's apparently keen on that, judging by what Somekh says.)
Compass-EOS is bulked-up like a router company. It's got more than 150 employees and has raised more than US$120 million since 2006, from investors including Comcast Ventures, T-Venture (an arm of Deutsche Telekom AG) and even Cisco.
— Craig Matsumoto, Managing Editor, Light Reading