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Cisco Pioneers New Router for Handling Explosive Growth of Internet Traffic

Company goes back to drawing board to rewrite the book on routers; showcases world's most advanced networking microprocessor

March 04, 2008

By Charles Waltner, News@Cisco

This router is so cool, even John Chambers wants to get in on the act.

Cisco Systems' iconic chief executive typically shies away from product launches, instead focusing on the big business and financial issues. But not this time.

Today Chambers took the mic to announce what Cisco believes is the beginning of a new era in router design and networking capabilities—a device that will make the transition to 21st century communications quite a bit easier.

While its name might not elicit tingles of anticipation, the Cisco Aggregation Services Router (ASR) 1000 Series pioneers a revolutionary approach to networking gear. By fundamentally changing the way it had been building its mainstay routers, the company was able to tap the best of its last 20 years of networking expertise and combine it with the vital improvements necessary for managing today's multi-tasking networks.

Routers are the brains behind the Internet and other modern communications systems, including telephone networks and now even TV services. Because of the booming popularity of video and other more demanding communications options, networks are becoming increasingly difficult to manage, leaving their operators overwhelmed and scrambling to keep up.

We just couldn't keep making routers the same old way. The number of services and baseline features our customers need to turn on has exploded.

Stefan Dyckerhoff, VP/GM of Cisco's Midrange Router business unit

Cisco executives say they not only expect the ASR 1000 series to provide immediate relief to the company's customers, they also view it as the progenitor for an extensive new line of routers that will make watching video or collaborating with multimedia as easy as email.

While Cisco publicly debuted the router today, the company has already landed a major customer, Japan's telecom giant, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (NTT). Cisco now has more than 150 other telecommunications companies and major corporations lined up to test the device. "That's unprecedented demand for an unannounced product," says Stefan Dyckerhoff, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Midrange Router business unit. "The ASR 1000 has a set of technologies and capabilities that none of our competitors can match."


At the heart of the ASR 1000 networking machine is what is arguably the most advanced piece of silicon microelectronics ever created: the Cisco QuantumFlow Processor. The company says the sophisticated silicon's refined "multi-core" design helps the ASR 1000 outstrip any router in its class by several orders of magnitude, especially when performing the most complex tasks required by today's networks.

The router also features the new Cisco IOS XE operating system. It takes the best from Cisco's venerable Internetworking Operating System (IOS) and marries it with the advantages of "modular" software. The new system provides network managers far greater ease in accommodating the increasingly diverse ways people are using Internet-based communications, company executives say.

Because of its capabilities, the Cisco ASR 1000 can reduce the number of networking devices required to carry out specialized functions, such as security checks and quality control for video signals. This will help reduce the costs and complexities of today's communications systems, the company says. Such capabilities in the ASR 1000 will also allow network operators, particularly telecommunications companies and large businesses, far more flexibility in what type of services they can support while making it much easier to tailor communications options for each network user.

At the same time, the ASR 1000's new software design addresses the imperative to keep today's communications systems running with the famous "five nines" (99.999 percent) of dependability people expect from any other vital modern service, such as electricity or the basic telephone.

And thanks to its sophisticated silicon and progressive design, the router is up to 50 percent more energy efficient (as well as much smaller) than comparable products, an increasingly critical issue for data centers and large computing facilities.

Cisco claims the ASR 1000 series routers will cost substantially less per network user than any competing technologies. The router will initially have three models, starting at $35,000.


But making the ASR 1000 was not easy. Several hundred engineers worked for over five years on the router. Combined with the investments to develop the QuantumFlow Processor, Cisco spent about $250 million on the project. That effort, executives say, will more than pay for itself with one or two decades of benefits as the ASR's major technological advances ripple through the company's product lines.

The networking giant not only needed to invest tremendous resources into the project, the company also had to fundamentally transform some of its most important development practices. Things have changed quite a bit since Cisco sold its first multi-protocol router 20-some years ago, and the company realized it needed to take a much bolder approach to how it would refresh its keystone technology.

In order to fine-tune the QuantumFlow Processor to the exacting needs of packet routing, Cisco developed the complex chip technology completely in-house, a first for the company. But to do so, Cisco had to make significant long-term investments to build up its own silicon design capabilities to equal those of top-tier chip makers, such Intel Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

The ASR 1000's unprecedented architecture also required new software and hardware development methodologies, forcing engineering teams from both groups to work more closely together in order to fully optimize the processor for the router's operating system. Most notably, the project's software team often led overall design efforts, something unheard of in the networking business.

Just to start the effort, Cisco had to swallow hard and make the controversial decision to commit to such an ambitious concept. That caused some delays in its typical product cycle, but it's a move Cisco executives clearly do not regret.

"We just couldn't keep making routers the same old way," Dyckerhoff says. "The number of services and baseline features our customers need to turn on has exploded. Sometimes it was a very painful process, but half-measures were not going to solve the problem. Now I think everyone is pretty happy we took the extra time to get it right."

Michael Beesley, chief architect for the ASR 1000, says Cisco's willingness to invest so much time, money, and resources into the project was crucial to achieving such technological advances. "You just can't do this kind of thing cheaply," Beesley says. "Believe me, over the course of my career I've tried every other possible way to design routers, but none of the other options gets the job done. You have to spend a lot of money to build this kind of high-performance machine."


Deb Mielke, a telecommunications industry analyst with Treillage Network Strategies, says the Cisco ASR 1000 is a natural evolution from the company's last milestone project, the CRS-1, a massive backbone router unveiled in 2004. The CRS-1 gave the company a new understanding of microprocessor development and modular software design.

"They've learned from the CRS-1 and now they have applied those lessons to the ASR router," Mielke says. "The ASR does indeed appear to be "leapfrog technology" that will put it ahead of the competition for at least a couple of years. But given the capabilities of Cisco's rivals, it will certainly have to continue such advances."

Mielke says the ASR 1000 should provide Cisco significant help in the highly competitive "edge" router equipment market, which she adds has been a relative weakness for Cisco, especially with customers in the telecommunications industries. Cisco says the ASR 1000 can help it regain some of the ground it has lost to new competitors in this arena.

Mielke says the ASR 1000 gets its capabilities from the combination of the QuantumFlow Processor's serious horsepower coupled with an operating system fine-tuned for delivering the sorts of management services modern networks require for pristine video and crystal-clear audio connections. "It's all about control, quality, and bandwidth."

Mielke says the ASR 1000 has the potential to make the average citizen's communications and entertainment experiences significantly better. "If he's using YouTube, he should be psyched. He's going to get better looking video faster than ever before."

Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.

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