Comms chips

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

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Jeel 12/5/2012 | 3:26:23 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000

I am new to LR and I work for a marketing firm in a small group evaluating product launch strategies.

As Craig mentions, the entire ASR9k launch is spinning around 400G/slot promise. Yet, second week into the launch, there is barely any official information on product's actual capabilities.

Unofficially, web search reveals the datasheet for ASR9K Ethernet cards (Japanese but google can translate it).


According to the datasheet, the cards are 40G/slot.
At 8 slots per chassis, this is not much to write home about.

Apparently, the 400G story was designed not to sell ASR9000 that much but rather to prevent others from selling.

In other words, seem to be a barrier launch.

So it's professionally interesting to me if someone comments:

1) is it common in the network industry to do barrier launches?
2) is it considered fair or moral practice?
3) how customers respond to barrier launches?
4) how common is buyers remorse? Legal consequences? Lawsuits?

It would be great to get some insight.
IPforEverything 12/5/2012 | 3:26:20 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 > Legal consequences? Lawsuits?

If I remember correctly this is one of the things that got IBM into trouble in their 1969 anti-trust problems. (In their case they were accused of announcing new paper versions of System 360 to prevent people from buying competitor's machines.)
gbmorrison 12/5/2012 | 3:26:20 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 I think Cisco would look bad for NOT taking advantage of the billions of $$$ in free R&D and competitive intelligence on offer here. Just think how much the VCs and then-flush comms ICs cos threw at this market for the last 10 yrs, and how much time those engineers spent with Cisco's competitors. One or two companies gets a lousy $10-15M and the rest of the money just made Cisco stronger and lessened their development time and expenses. The VC number alone into the net processor cos is easily $1B. Another $1B from the big chip players.
Hanover_Fist 12/5/2012 | 3:26:19 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 Talking about a marketing machine!

When has Cisco marketing ever been "honest" when disclosing internal product architectures and performance numbers?


Has that ever stopped Cisco from a successfuly product launch??


Has that ever stopped Cisco customers from buying Cisco products???


Does Cisco do this intentionally????


I suggest that the other networking manufacturers work on a critical competitive analysis that helps clear up this fud.

But those networking manufacturers must also clearly explain their own claims within the same analytical work and be prepared to defend themselves from an equivalent Cisco attack.
Hanover_Fist 12/5/2012 | 3:26:18 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 Jeel,
Two theorems to live by...

There's no such thing as ethics or morals in business

High-Tech Marketing = Science Fiction
gotman 12/5/2012 | 3:26:18 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 and above all Jeel works at a Cisco competitor...in their marketing group somewhere...
paolo.franzoi 12/5/2012 | 3:26:17 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000

I think your characterization is wrong. The idea of a futures based presentation is to give customers a view to where the platform could head.

Anytime a customer introduces a new box (even the replacement for the existing box from the same vendor) there is a cost to do so. So, one way to give benefit is to show how the box will scale into the future. This is not just to hit the competition, but to justify the switch.

So, I believe you have a premise and are making assumptions based on this premise. Whether the actual 400G/slot is ever achieved is irrelevant at some level. IF it is designed to do so AND this becomes important AND becomes cost effective THEN Cisco will likely develop the capability. Most vendors don't even spell out HOW they might scale the boxes. It is not even clear that this is an appropriate scale for this box.

Jeel 12/5/2012 | 3:26:17 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000
> and above all Jeel works at a Cisco competitor...in their marketing group somewhere...

Mr. Gotman, thanks for reading my post.
I thought I was quite clear about my affiliation.

Although we do not compete with Cisco and ASR9K product in any measurable way, some of our clients actually do compete with Cisco in other markets. Thus, I do not consider myself to be neutral to Cisco - or any other industry player. My intention is simply to learn from their experience.

Is it fair enough :) ?

Now, back to business - it seems to me, that Cisco's strategy of ASR9K launch was well accepted - or at least deemed "typical" by participants.

That's a valuable bit of information for me.

Thanks to all who replied.
metroman 12/5/2012 | 3:26:14 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 Who is the big loser here? Juniper and Cisco need to battle for features on their platforms using this 3rd party chip. Will Juniper lose out to Cisco's volumes?

metroman 12/5/2012 | 3:26:14 PM
re: Chipping Away at Cisco's ASR 9000 seven

You would be correct if Cisco had been clear about what the capabilities actually are for the platorm today. There is no mention of actual capability; there does not seem to be much urgency from them to do so. This smacks of trying to lead the market by the nose.

You can fool some of the people all of the time, but the market is a little wiser these days. They actually look quite defensive - not proud of either the capacity today or the EZChip and how that will limit their control.

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