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27 October 2020

Cisco announces six router and switch chips based on Silicon One

Cisco has announced six new router and switch chips as part of the Silicon One initiative, which it unveiled last year in a major shake-up of its platform and its differentiation in its core market.

All the chips are made in 7-nanometer geometry and range from 3.2Tbps to 12.8Tbps of capacity. There are three routing models, the Q200, Q201 and Q202, and three for switching – Q200L, Q201L and Q202L. In all cases, all the silicon is consolidated into a single die, replacing up to 10 components in some competitors’ chips and delivering performance and power efficiencies as a result, said Cisco. The high end Q200 and Q200L share the same footprint so customers can use the same appliance design to support switching or routing functions according to the chip.

“The Cisco Silicon One portfolio now covers the entire space from service provider and webscale routers all the way to the top-of-rack switches and everything in between,” wrote Eyal Dagan, SVP of Cisco’s common hardware group, in a blog post.

He also said that the unified architecture Cisco in late 2019 enables it to roll out new silicon at a far faster rate than traditional suppliers, while maintaining a common software base for developers. Presumably the next step will be to announce 25.6Tbps switch-chips, as Innovium and Broadcom have both done this year. And Nokia is pushing Cisco hard in router silicon with its FP4 family.

Cisco’s new announcements build on a bold new approach to silicon, unveiled in December. Silicon One is a programmable silicon architecture which Cisco developed with help from Google Cloud, and heavily focused on reducing component count. At launch, Cisco claimed that Silicon One had enabled the first router processor to break the 10Tbps barrier with a single ASIC, delivering twice the network bandwidth of competitors and, according to the vendor, more packets per second than any other programmable silicon.

It is positioning the portfolio for an era when single-purpose chips will fade away. In its vision, the same trends that have shaped server and network hardware will trickle down to chips – a combination of general purpose platforms that can be programmed for many functions, with disaggregation. The latter started with the separation of hardware and software, allowing software to run on multiple vendors’ equipment. Now individual functions within a piece of software or hardware are becoming disaggregated, allowing for mix-and-match systems; and the next phase will be to drive that down into silicon, via technologies like chiplets.

The first router to be based on Silico One was the Cisco 8000 platform. This was designed to reduce the cost of deploying very large-scale networks, especially targeting dense 5G roll-outs that could start to approach Internet scale. These have only been seen in China so far, but Cisco is banking on there being far more as the 2020s roll on.

study by ACG Research found that the 8000 Series router, combined with Cisco’s Crosswork Network Automation software, could deliver five-year total cost of ownership savings of 87% compared to first generation routers and 66% savings compared to the second generation.

Cisco claims to have spent nearly $1bn over the past five years in developing the new technologies. One aspect of that investment has been in integrated optics technology, with service providers increasingly needing to own the optics as they scale up their platforms. This is an area where Nokia has shone, but some analysts believe that Cisco is now biting at the Finnish firm’s heels.

With port rates rising from 100G to 400G and beyond, optics are an increasingly large part of the cost of building and running Internet and telecoms transport infrastructure. “We have to be investing in optics,” said Bill Gartner, general manager of Cisco’s optical Systems Group, in December. “We can’t ignore what will be 70% of the cost.” Cisco has made a string of optics-related acquisitions including CoreOptics in 2010, Lightwire in 2012, Luxtera in 2018, and Acacia in 2019.

All three elements of Cisco’s portfolio – silicon, software and optics – will be increasingly important for operators as they deploy 5G, since it will require very high capacity backhaul in many scenarios, but the cost of that will be prohibitive without new platforms.

The first telco to use the 8000 Series is STC of Saudi Arabia and the platform is also in trials with Comcast and AT&T in the USA, and NTT Communications in Japan.

The influence of the cloud giants, and the need to transfer that expertise to telecoms environments, is evident everywhere. As well as working with Google Cloud on Silicon One, Cisco has also partnered with Facebook and Microsoft. In addition to running Cisco’s own operating system, the new routing platforms support two open source OSs which originated from Microsoft, and are not part of the Facebook-initiated Open Compute Project (OCP). These are Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI), and Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC).

The head of Cisco’s service provider business, Jonathan Davidson, told last fall’s Barclay’s investor conference: “There are three distinct decisions that need to be made with 5G. Cisco does not participate in the first, the radio network procurement, but it aims to secure a strong position with operators in the backhaul domain (addressed with the 8000 and surrounding announcements) as well as the mobile core.

“There’s too much bandwidth in a 5G radio to use your existing backhaul network in almost every scenario,” Davidson said. “Mobile backhaul is a routed and optical infrastructure play for Cisco”, while the 5G core is a pure software play.

He added: “When you have all of that traffic coming in to this backhaul infrastructure, it’s going to hit your IP core as well. The Cisco 8000 is started at the IP core network, and we think it has a significant competitive advantage against anyone else in the industry with capacity, significant power savings, and we think it will help people accelerate their 5G deployments.”