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Nokia targets webscale giants as it starts to ship its petabit-class router

Nokia is starting to ship one of the flagship products in its bid to extend its customer base beyond MNOs – petabit routers based on its new FP4 processor. First announced in June, the chip and the 7950 line of routers it enables are targeted squarely at webscale cloud companies, pushing the successful IP business which Nokia acquired with Alcatel-Lucent beyond its telco comfort zone.

The Finnish firm said it was shipping small volumes to select customers at the end of last year and general availability will start in 2018. As well as the new “petabit-class” 7950, Nokia will use the FP4 in its existing flagship series, the 7750, which was the fruits of ALU’s acquisition of start-up TiMetra. While the souped-up 7750 will aim to satisfy the rising traffic burdens of telcos and MNOs, and hold its own against Cisco and Juniper, the 7950 will be specifically geared to the web giants.

The FP4 will also have to fight it out with the latest merchant switch-chip from Broadcom, the Tomahawk 3, which is also targeted at webscale players’ massive throughput requirements. The cloud giants have tended to use specialized ASICs, and in some areas they are even designing their own processors (Facebook, Google and Microsoft all have these programs). However, they also want to reduce the costs of their vast scaling-up initiatives by relying on merchant silicon where they can. Barefoot Networks, for instance, is working with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, as well as some telcos.

This is the battleground into which Nokia is venturing with FP4 and the new routers, aiming to boost its non-telco business in line with the diversification strategy set out by CEO Rajeev Suri last year. In this, the IP routing business that came as part of ALU’s dowry will be very important. It was a jewel in that acquisition and was taking share from Cisco and others in some areas of the carrier market. However, it has gone rather quiet under Nokia’s wing, and has reported some negative results in recent quarters.

The new processor and routers will have a good shot at reversing the decline. Suri said last year that the fixed networking division was “too heavily weighted towards communication service providers, and that market is currently quite soft”. As part of Nokia’s broader push to kickstart growth by targeting “adjacencies” in the enterprise, cloud and IoT, the fixed networks business will need to expand its reach into new areas too. Suri said at the time: “We are making good progress in expanding our business to new customers, including large Internet companies where growth is strong, and expect that a coming IP product refresh will strengthen our competitive position.”

That product refresh is now with us, and the internet giants are very much in its sights.

The FP4 processor is capable of 2.4Tbps of performance. It is a successor to the venerable FP3, which was itself a 400Gbps game-changer when it burst on the scene back in 2011. The new chip is implemented in a 16nm FInFet process, a significant advance on the FP3’s 40nm, and Nokia claims it is not just “the world’s first multi-terabit chipset”, but also up to six times more powerful than any other processor currently available.

Basil Alwan, president of the IP/Optical Networks business unit, told the press launch last summer that the FP4 had been designed for the next phase of the Internet, and particularly “cloud-scale routing”, since it coupled performance with in-built security and relatively low power consumption – both critical requirements for webscale companies as well as telcos.

Several processors can be combined in one package to enable line cards capable of 12Tbps. These can be used in new routers – to achieve the sixfold traffic boost – or slotted into older ones of up to 10 years old. In that scenario, they could double the capacity of a 7750 SR-12 Service Router, or treble that of the newer 7750 SR-12e.

There will be a new 7750, the single-shelf 7750 SR-14s, based on the new chip and able to handle up to 144Tbps. But the product Nokia will be aiming at the core routing market and the webscale players is the 7950 XRS-XC Extensible Routing System, which can get to 576Tbps (just over half a petabit) in a single system, achieved with chassis extension and no need for switching shelves.

Nokia is surrounding the router with other elements of its rapidly evolving portfolio. It is designed to be more programmable than its predecessors. For instance, the FP4 can stream traffic statistics to an external analytics system, such as the Deepfield IP platform recently acquired by Nokia, in order to spot hacker attacks and other security issues, or gain better insights into traffic patterns overall. This is something the webscale players are good at, Alwan said, but service providers need to catch up, as their networks are “more opaque”.

Nokia designed its own memory and MAC address chips to drive performance still further, and is using a 2.5D packaging technology which was originally devised for the gaming industry. The decision to take ‘intelligent memory’ design inhouse was taken because very high throughput speeds are highly reliant on memory, and Nokia wanted to be able to control that key technology, and push it beyond what most merchant suppliers are doing.

Steve Vogelsang, CTO of the IP and Optical Networks division, said the FP4 was not a step upgrade but a whole new design. “What we decided is that we really did need to re-architect this system — the chipset — on an end-to-end basis to optimize it for cloud-scale routing.” And he said the strength of the FP3 gave ALU and then Nokia a full six years to develop and perfect its successor, which was longer than usual in a segment with five-year upgrade cycles.

“We could have gone to 28nm or 22nm, but we just didn’t see it providing enough of a step function increase,” he told EETimes. “What we had with the previous generation was still largely meeting our customers’ demands, so we had that luxury to say, ‘OK, let’s go for something that really gets that next step function.’ We are always looking for an order of magnitude impact for the next thing.”

But there are other factors at work which may challenge Nokia, especially in the webscale world, however impressive the performance of its hardware. These include the efforts by Google and others to develop or commission silicon inhouse; the web world’s preference for open multivendor platforms rather than proprietary solutions; and the shift towards virtualization.

On the last point, it will be a long time before an x86 processor can handle terabits of traffic as a core router must. Virtualization may eat into the edge router market, as it is into other areas of Nokia’s hardware business, but at the high end, specialized processors will be needed for a long time, and will command high prices.

The web giants’ desire for control and multivendor openness could be addressed by Nokia offering the FP4 as a merchant chip rather than the engine of its own closed routers. Another optical player, Ciena, for instance, has made its underlying solution available to other vendors as it targets players which want open platforms and as it – like Nokia – derives more and more of its value from its software and orchestration offerings.

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