Cisco makes radical change, disaggregating telco software from its boxes at last

Cisco has clung to its integrated model – hardware and software inextricably bound together – for longer than most companies, but even the router giant has to accept the changes to its world, wrought by white box hardware, open source software and multivendor interoperability.

So the company has made one of its most radical changes of direction ever, agreeing to sell some of its software, particularly for service providers, separately from its hardware, and enabling the software to run on third party devices. This reveals the pressure Cisco is under, as its market share in core sectors, such as switching, has declined (though in data center switching it is still over 50%), partly because of challenges from companies which do separate their hardware and software.

The first major piece of service provider software to be offered independently of Cisco boxes is IOS XR, the operating system for telco networks, which will now be able to run on white boxes, merchant silicon and x86 servers.

Sumeet Arora, SVP of engineering for the service provider unit at Cisco, played down the idea that this change of strategy had been forced upon the vendor by developments like AT&T’s promise to deploy thousands of white box routers running an open source operating system, dNOS.

“We don’t see that as a threat and we have a strong track record of contributing to open source,” said Arora. “The majority want our integrated systems. The ability to consume innovation from different players, integrate those players and manage the whole lifecycle requires a lot of capability on the part of customers.”

Certainly, open interoperable white box networks are not a cheap option, despite their low upfront costs compared to traditional proprietary, integrated solutions. Many operators have talked of the investment required in integration services and inhouse skills to make open platforms sufficiently robust for commercial systems, and of the complexity of making products from different suppliers work together. BT, Orange and even the highly advanced SK Telecom have all pointed out the operational and cost challenges of working with multiple technology vendors.

“The ownership of the overall system and the network performance will fall on the integrator,” Arora told LightReading. “That is something the industry will have to work out together in cases where this happens.”