Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000
Details are emerging about the recently launched Aggregation Services Router (ASR) 9000 edge router from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), including the initial per-slot speed and the source of early confusion over the chips inside the box.
The ASR 9000, expected to ship next year, is a souped-up box that's being regarded as the long-term successor to the Cisco 7600. The 9000 is capable of running 400 Gbit/s per slot (that is, 200 Gbit/s of ingress or egress traffic at any given time), although Cisco has already conceded that early versions won't achieve that rate. (See Cisco Pumps Up the Edge.)
Now, one source familiar with the router's innards has given Light Reading a specific figure: The box will run just 180 Gbit/s per slot in its first iteration, easily outpacing the 40 Gbit/s available on routers like the CRS-1, but short of the eventual mark.
A Cisco spokeswoman wouldn't confirm that number, but did reaffirm via email that the ASR 9000 "will support an in-place upgrade path up to 400 Gbps per slot."
The nature of that upgrade remains vague. Does it involve an upgraded switch fabric? A transplantable backplane? Magic beans?
A separate source familiar with Cisco's plans says the upgrade won't require exotic technologies and that the problems with designing the 400-Gbit/s slots mostly involved power density rather than the raw speed of the signals.
No QuantumFlow of solace
On the chip front, sources from pretty much every direction say the ASR 9000's linecards will be based on EZchip Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: EZCH) network processors. But why, then, did an otherwise accurate early report from Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. analyst Ittai Kidron specify the QuantumFlow chip? (See Cisco's EZ 400-Gig and Cisco Plans Edge-Router Splash.)
Because Cisco said so, in a way. The ASR 9000 briefing that Cisco eventually gave to analysts referenced the QuantumFlow name. It's just that "QuantumFlow," in this case, didn't refer to the QuantumFlow Processor (QFP) that was introduced in February with the ASR 1000 router. (See Cisco Touts Chip Breakthrough.)
"Cisco is purposely causing people to be confused," one source says. "Suddenly QuantumFlow is a brand that's used for all their network processors."
Via email, the Cisco spokeswoman confirmed the wider definition: "Analysts were told that the ASR 9000 supports a member of the QuantumFlow family of forwarding engines. QuantumFlow is a Cisco silicon brand which indicates focus on high performance edge networking, with service richness and low power consumption."
For the ASR 9000, sources say the "QuantumFlow" in question is the NP-3c, a Cisco-specific variation on EZchip's NP-3 device. ("So, they can sort of, with a straight face, call it a custom processor," our source notes.) Eventual 400-Gbit/s linecards would reportedly use the next-generation NP-4.
(It's actually Marvell Technology Group Ltd. (Nasdaq: MRVL) that sells the EZchip network processors to Cisco; EZchip gets royalties. The companies announced their partnership in 2006. See EZchip, Marvell Partner.)
It's hardly new for a marketing team to take liberties with language. But the QuantumFlow incident shows that Cisco remains sensitive about admitting it's using off-the-shelf packet-processing chips.
The spokeswoman acknowledges Cisco uses other companies' chips. But neither Cisco nor EZchip will confirm the companies' relationship -- even though they're known to be working together. (See EZchip Names Cisco, Juniper.)
That's been a problem for network processor startups all along. Back around 1999, chip companies saw an opportunity to supply packet-processing devices to then-plentiful router and switch startups, but found that most customers didn't want to admit they were using externally sourced chips.
Cisco and Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), in particular, had always designed their own application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) for their linecards and switching cards. That way, all the engineering, all the know-how, and all the bragging rights stayed in-house.
Our source guesses Cisco wanted to keep up that image for the ASR 9000. "This is a pretty strategic platform, so I can see why they wouldn't want to make people think they don't control the architecture."
EZchip's sales into Juniper have been more publicly acknowledged, since Juniper represents so much of the chipmaker's revenues. Among other design wins, EZchip devices sit alongside Juniper's own packet processors in the MX series of Ethernet Services Routers, sources say.
EZchip isn't the only survivor of the old network processor days. Swedish startup Xelerated Inc. , too, has supplied chips to Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , while Bay Microsystems Inc. has kept afloat partly on business with the U.S. military.
Meanwhile, switch fabric maker Dune Networks claims it's got deals with systems vendors all over the place. (See Chipmakers Unfazed by Vendor Chip Shops, Xelerated Takes On Broadcom, Marvell, Bay Raises $16M, and Dune: They're Still Alive.)
Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) remains proud of using its own ASICs (rather than network processors) in its 7750 Service Router and 7450 Ethernet Service Switch boxes. "The FP2 chipset is... the foundation for Alcatel-Lucent's roadmap to get to 100 Gbit/s and beyond, and it is in production today. No other router vendor will have samples of a comparable 100-Gbit/s chipset before mid-2009," vice president of marketing Lindsay Newell crows in an email to Light Reading. (See AlcaLu Beefs Up Its Routers.)
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading