The 1800, 2800, and 3800 lines are designed to provide performance upgrades compared with Cisco's 1700, 2600, and 3600 lines, according to sources who requested anonymity.
More importantly, the new routers reportedly turn security and VOIP into standard features, rather than putting them in add-on modules, a move that could significantly change the role routers play in the network.
And in a break from tradition, Cisco is said to be preparing Linux-based cards to go with the new routers, allowing them to run applications not based on the company's Internetwork Operating System (IOS).
Juniper has been aggressively targeting the enterprise space since its acquisition of security specialist NetScreen Technologies Inc. (see Juniper Buys NetScreen).
One source thinks Cisco's services push is a strike back at Juniper, which in addition to grabbing NetScreen has introduced the J-series routers to compete with Cisco's 2600 and its ilk (see Juniper's 'Pepsi' Set to Pop and Juniper Unveils J-Series Routers). "Juniper with the NetScreen acquisition integrates a formidable solution at a lower price point," one source notes.
Cisco's new emphasis on services represents a major change in router design -- "a really big step forward," according to one router expert familiar with Cisco's plans. Historically, routers and switches have been judged on their expertise in shuttling packets around. But vendors want to do more by making their equipment the focal point from which service providers and enterprises will launch and control applications.
Analysts don't appear to have been briefed by Cisco yet -- Erik Suppiger at Pacific Growth Equities Inc. had heard little beyond one tidbit about the routers' chips (noted below) -- but they expect to see routers increasingly absorbing services. "Inevitably, that will be a direction the market goes in," Suppiger says.
Juniper, in particular, is expected to infuse routers with security technology acquired with NetScreen. Arguably, a similar philosophy permeates Juniper's Infranet initiative, where different parts of the network would tune themselves to suit the application being delivered. Routers and switches would likely take the lead role in making sure the right amounts of bandwidth and security get allocated (see Juniper Does Vision Thing and Juniper's Infranet Takes Baby Steps).
And Cisco itself has hinted at this direction with recent partnerships and acquisitions, including the pending purchase of traffic-management specialist P-Cube Inc. (see Cisco Plucks P-Cube for $200M and Cisco Reroutes Traffic Management).
So what's Cisco's roadmap with these new routers? Sources say the vendor is trying its services direction on smaller enterprise offices first, targeting the 1800, 2800, and 3800 at the branch-office outposts of large enterprises.
That's a move that makes some sense. In those locations, it's not practical to buy separate appliances for functions such as VOIP. Moreover, remote offices generally don't have the tech support to be adding daughter cards and swapping around modules.
"They're putting voice signaling into the router, for example, for people without the money to put an IP PBX on-site," one source says. "You could try to scale down a server-based IP PBX, but the thinking behind [the new routers] is that there's just a lot of operational efficiency" in putting everything into one box.
The obvious question is whether it's healthy to have all these things in one box -- or, to put it less politely, whether carriers can rely on Cisco to run all these functions. The vendor is confident of service provider backing for this move. One source says the company can point to analyst figures showing that carriers want routers to incorporate functions such as security, to curb the proliferation of appliances in their networks. "More than half of them a year ago were asking for security on a router," the source says.
This integration hasn't been practical, however, because extra features -- security in particular -- will slow down a router. But sources say Cisco's new routers will pack extra hardware to keep them running at wire speed even with all the bells and whistles running.
On the security side, the 2800 and 3800 will include encryption accelerating chips from SafeNet Inc. (Nasdaq: SFNT), says Pacific Growth Equities analyst Suppiger. For VOIP, another source says all three platforms' motherboards will have slots for digital signal processors (DSPs), the chips that handle analog voice signals.
With all the new hardware, the routers are showing performance "far superior" to their predecessors, says yet another source who's seen early test results.
The hardware allows Cisco to put resiliency behind some features. One source notes that VOIP services, for example, will be able to transfer to the public telephone network should they detect a break in the WAN connection.
For other applications, the source says Cisco is preparing a set of nearly generic Linux-based blades that will include hard drives of up to 80 Gbytes. Cisco intends to buy flexibility by using Linux rather than IOS, which runs on nearly all the company's routers. "They can take software developed internally but not on IOS, or software from an acquisition, and port it to these systems," the source says.
The cards are intended for Layer 4 through Layer 7 services. This won't be Cisco's first public admission of Linux use -- the operating system runs Cisco's print servers, for example -- but it could be the first time Linux is given such a prominent role in a Cisco product launch.
The routers apparently will run on an established version of IOS. "Although Cisco has been publicly saying for 18 months that it plans to make the existing IOS more modular and consolidate down into eight images for [customer-premises equipment], software changes do not seem to be part of this product announcement," says another source familiar with the new equipment.
The new routers are expected to begin shipping within the next few weeks.
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
For more on this topic, check out:
- The coming Light Reading Live! event:
— Next Generation Services Roadshow
- Enterprise Convergence: The Cost of Change
- Ensuring Business Continuity on Enterprise & Financial Networks
- Building a Successful Full Service Packet Voice and IP Network
- Carrier VOIP: How to Build Reliable Networks
- The Future of Voice, Video, and Data
- Infrastructure Requirements for Enterprise VOIP