Cisco Wants to 'Build a New Internet' for 5G

SAN FRANCISCO -- Cisco rolled out a revamp of its end-to-end networking portfolio on Wednesday, including new silicon, optics and software that, the company proclaims, will carry the Internet through the next decade.

The "Internet for the Future" strategy includes Cisco Silicon One, "a first-ever single, unified silicon architecture that can serve anywhere in the network and be used in any form factor," the company said in a statement.

Cisco also debuted the 8000 Series product line, a series of carrier-class routers that is the first product set built with Silicon One and the vendor's new IOS X7 operating system. The equipment is designed to reduce the cost of building and operating mass networks to run digital applications and services such as 5G data, video and cloud.

Cisco's new strategy is accompanied by support from an all-star list of service providers and hypercloud giants, including AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and The Walt Disney Studios. Interestingly, the list of operators supporting Cisco Wednesday includes companies that have traditionally been outspoken advocates of open source software and commodity hardware -- AT&T, Facebook and Microsoft. Open source and Cisco are usually seen as awkward bedfellows, but these operators see them as compatible.

"We are dedicated to transforming the industry to build a new internet for the 5G era," Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said in a statement. "Our latest solutions in silicon, optics and software represent the continued innovation we're driving that helps our customers stay ahead of the curve and create new, ground-breaking experiences for their customers and end users for decades to come," he gushed.

Find out what you need to know about the 5G network revolution at Light Reading's 5G content channel.

Cisco cites a laundry list of the usual suspects driving the need for revolutionary networking technology, including VR/AR, 5G, 10G (cable, not cellular...), quantum computing, IoT "and others not yet invented," Cisco says.

"These future generations of applications will drive complexity beyond the capabilities current infrastructure can viably support," the company says.

Start with the chip
The new Silicon One hardware provides a unified, programmable silicon architecture that "will be the foundation of Cisco's routing portfolio going forward," with performance of up to 25 Tbit/s in the near term. Cisco claims this is the first networking chip designed to be universally adaptable across service providers and web-scale markets, designed for both fixed and modular platforms. The first Cisco Silicon One Q100 model surpasses 10 Tbit/s throughput without sacrificing programmability, buffering, power efficiency, scale or feature flexibility, Cisco says.

"Traditionally, multiple types of silicon with different capabilities are used across a network and even within a single device," Cisco says. Developing new features and testing drives up costs and time to market. "Unified and programmable silicon will allow for network operators to greatly reduce costs of operations and reduce time-to-value for new services," Cisco says.

Cisco is partnering with Google in developing silicon. As Cisco develops high-end routing silicon, it will work with Google "to help meet the next generation of network demands for higher speeds and greater capacity," said Amin Vahdat, fellow and vice president of Systems Infrastructure for Google Cloud, in Cisco's statement.

And Facebook sees Silicon One as compatible with its work on network disaggregation and open ecosystems, Najam Ahmad, Facebook's vice president of network engineering, said in a Cisco statement: Facebook, of course, has been instrumental in the launch of industry initiatives such as the Open Compute Project and Telecom Infrastructure Project.

The new Cisco 8000 series is the first platform built with the Cisco Silicon One Q100 processor, the vendor says. The router is designed to help service providers and web-scale companies reduce the cost of building and operating next-generation networks. The equipment is optimized for 400 Gbit/s per port and beyond, starting at 10.8 Tbit/s in a single rack unit, with Cisco stressing that its products have been designed to deliver terabit-level throughout "in even the most power and space constrained network locations." Power and space are particularly constrained at edge computing locations, suggesting the new 8000 series is designed with such facilities in mind.

To help manage the routers in environments with large numbers of network devices, the 8000 series supports SONiC, a.k.a. Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC), open source software Microsoft released in 2016 for operating and managing thousands of network devices, along with the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI), a standardized programming interface for ASICs.

Cisco is working on trials of the 8000 series with service providers. Middle East operator Saudi Telecom Company (STC) is the first customer deploying the new technology, with ongoing trials involving Comcast and NTT Communications.

Additionally, Cisco says it's investing in optics, but provided scant details, likely because its $2.6 billion acquisition of Acacia is not yet closed. Optics are becoming an increasingly bigger part of the cost to build and operate Internet infrastructure, as port rates increase from 100G to 400G and beyond, Cisco says. The vendor adds that it's investing to meet demand as router and switch port rates increase.

Cisco offers a qualification program to test optics for compliance with industry standards and to ensure they operate in hosts from Cisco and other vendors.

Cisco's optics strategy is largely based on acquisitions. In addition to the Acacia deal, which is set to close next year, it acquired Luxtera last year, a semiconductor company that uses silicon photonics to build integrated optics capabilities for web-scale and enterprise data centers, service provider market segments, and other customers, for about $660 million in cash.

Zigging while the industry zags
Cisco's strategy to unify its networking lines using a single silicon architecture and operating systems comes as operators are increasingly asking for disaggregated networks from multiple vendors. However, Cisco is betting that scalability, latency and security requirements at the network core will demand a unified approach, IDC analyst Rohit Mehra, network infrastructure VP for the analyst firm, tells Light Reading. "Disaggregation doesn't fit on the scale of what we're talking about," he said. Disaggregation is more practical at the edge, where network operators are free to try different vendors and architectures.

"The sanctity of what you are doing at the core is more important," Mehra said.

Additionally, he said, disaggregated hardware using off-the-shelf components won't come close to providing the high performance needed at the core network.

Cisco's unified architecture will provide economies of scale needed for service providers to prosper in the 5G era when applications demand greater bandwidth but customers aren't willing to pay more, at least not in the long term in the US and some other countries, Ray Mota, ACG Research CEO and principal analyst, tells Light Reading.

To increase profits when subscribers demand more but won't pay for it, service providers need to reduce network costs. That's a lesson they failed to learn during the 4G era, Mota said.

"Operators need to reduce bandwidth costs as demands go up but not fees to match," he said. "They need to simplify to meet demand."

Of course, Cisco isn't the only company seeking to deliver core optical and routing platforms to network operators -- Mota cites Juniper and Nokia as two other companies also chasing high-performance core network equipment business.

Darkest before the dawn?
Cisco's announcement follows a gloomy fiscal report, with revenue for the quarter ending October 28 at $13.159 billion, up 2% year-over-year, but a forecast that revenue would decline 3% to 5% year-over-year in the second quarter.

Service provider revenue was down a hefty 13% year-over-year, as it has been in previous quarters.

CEO Chuck Robbins said on an earnings call last month that a worldwide economic malaise is a big factor contributing to the service provider slowdown. As for service providers, they're not yet investing in networks for 5G, as they're still building out trials for consumer-based 5G services, which they'll run mostly over existing transport networks, Robbins said.

However, as 5G enterprise business grows, services providers will need to beef up their backbones, and that's when they'll turn to Cisco and increase spending, Robbins said.

Robbins expects to see that increase in service provider spending in the second half of 2020: This week's "Internet of the Future" strategy looks like Cisco's play to meet that demand.

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— Mitch Wagner Visit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on TwitterJoin my Facebook GroupRead my blog: Things Mitch Wagner Saw Executive Editor, Light Reading

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