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The Evolution of Access Routing

Cisco's Ian Pennell discusses the demands of corporate WAN communications

June 14, 2004

Since 1986, when Cisco introduced the world's first multi-protocol router, Cisco has been helping companies boost productivity and increase profits with Internet protocol (IP) communications. Now, millions of Cisco access routers help businesses large and small around the globe extend their networks to all parts of their organizations. The access router is the key network device for connecting a corporate headquarters with far-flung branch offices, retail outlets, even telecommuters. They are the glue that holds together corporate communications.

News@Cisco recently spoke with Ian Pennell, the vice president and general manager of Cisco's Multiservice Edge business unit, about Cisco's history of access routing innovation and leadership. He offers his insights on how access routing has changed and what corporations expect from it now and in the future.

What are some of the key lessons Cisco has learned over the years about the access router market?

Ian Pennell: First, networking is evolving at an accelerating rate. You never reach the "end" of your work. You are always just at the beginning of innovation no matter how successful your previous products might have been. So there's no time to savor technological breakthroughs. You have to realize that any victories are short-lived and the only thing that counts is how you improve upon the past. At any one time my group has 60 projects in development, with more than 200 other projects in the queue. The reason for that is because customers will use networking capabilities as fast as we can make them. In their eyes, networks always have room for improvement. The more they can do with the network and the less they have to do to run the network, the happier they are.

We've also learned customers don't want to have to adapt to technology, but, quite appropriately, have technology adjust to their needs. And that goes to the heart of our innovation philosophy with our access routers. Though performance should always be considered, that is just one point of reference. Access routers need to be flexible and modular if they are to be successful with customers. Our goal is to make sure customers can buy just the right router for the job-no more, no less. To do this, we offer four primary lines of access routers: the Cisco 800 Series, the 1700 Series, the 2600/2700 Series, and the 3600/3700 Series. These span every conceivable link to a corporate headquarters, from a lone telecommuter to the largest branch office. Given the rapid evolution of technology, we have also made our access routers extremely modular. A company can buy the most basic version of an access router for, say, an Internet link or secure WAN connectivity, but may not want to deploy Internet telephony for two more years. With Cisco routers, they only have to add a module to have that capability rather than buy a whole new router. In other words, these expansion options provide excellent investment protection while letting the customer use the technology on their terms, at their pace.

How has access routing changed over the years and where is it headed?

Ian Pennell: Access routing has gone through several generational waves, each building off of the other. When access routing first started almost 20 years ago, it was focused on basic transport and performance-how fast you can move data packets from point A to B. These routers had only basic traffic awareness for security and the most simplistic features, such as multi-protocol processing. As routing continued to evolve, access routers gained new capabilities with the integration of primary data transport support features, including improved security with built-in intrusion detection, virtual private network, and firewall support. These routers also offered more advanced voice support with integrated voice gateway and toll bypass functions, as well as application optimization functions such as file compression and rudimentary quality-of-service (QoS). The current generation of access routers provides a far richer palette of advanced services for automating many networking functions related to security, voice, and QoS. These integrated services including such capabilities as dynamic intrusion protection, network admission control, VPN support, and 802.1x support for security and QoS, as well as voice mail conferencing and convergence application support for voice functions.

Corporate network managers now want the next wave of access routers to offer integrated services with application-level options, wireless connectivity, system-level management, self-defending intelligence, and video transport, among other possible options. In other words, the embedded features and the optional features of access routers continue to become more sophisticated as they move up the stack of network layers. It's important to note that each generation was effectively rolled out using experience garnered from the prior generation.

What are the most important features companies now look for in access routers?

Ian Pennell: More important than features, capabilities, or performance is quality. Larger corporations sometimes have thousands of branch offices or retail stores. Most of these locations have small staffs just focused on the company's core business activities. They don't have the IT personnel for trouble-shooting the network. So our customers need reliable access routers. As you can imagine, faulty access routers could create exponential management costs as companies would have to send out IT personnel to address problems, not to mention the productivity loss from lack of access to the corporate network. Given that many access routers are also running corporate voice communications, such reliability is doubly important. So, for Cisco, that is the first priority in all our access routers.

Also, access routers need to be easy to manage in other ways. Corporations need to deploy different types of access routers depending on the size and communication requirements of each branch office. So we've built a family of products that not only offers that variety but also have consistent features and functions through a common and flexible software platform-Cisco IOS. Because of this, customers don't have to learn a new interface for each type of access router they deploy, and because Cisco IOS is the world's most deployed network operating system, there is never a shortage of trained personnel. Also, we have built our access routers with embedded services and incremental capabilities. This way, a company doesn't have to buy and run a second "box" to deploy a new security feature or to set up IP telephony. It all can run from the same router. The fewer boxes in each branch, the better.

How has Cisco maintained its record of innovation and leadership in the access router market?

Ian Pennell: Well, first, our experience and rich assortment of customers provides us with excellent insight into what access routers need to do. All innovation begins with customer feedback. Our experience then helps us understand all the ins-and-outs of access routing-bandwidth concerns, security issues, remote access challenges, etc-which may in some way influence how we address customer needs with our routers. Coupled with this, we stay intensely committed to this market. Cisco now has over 1,000 engineers working directly on access routers, and the size of the group has tripled in the last two years, so, clearly, we are pushing ourselves to create even better products for branch office communications. Finally, the breadth of Cisco's full product line greatly enhances the technologies we can put in our access routers. My group draws off the innovations in our wireless, IP telephony, Ethernet, high-end routing and other groups to add capabilities to our access routers. So for my group, it is like having partnerships with dozens of companies that freely let us draw from their own innovations.

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