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18 December 2019

Open silicon and software, plus optics – Cisco’s recipe to regain telcos via 5G

Cisco made its boldest set of announcements for years last week, in an ambitious bid to reverse the decline in its service provider business (down 13% year-on-year in the most recent quarter) and reassert control over the way the Internet platform will evolve in the next generation.

The company’s technology was foundational to the early commercial Internet but in recent years, it has struggled to adapt to a world of open cloud architectures and virtualization, and other technologies which break down the dominance of its closed, vertically integrated platforms in enterprise and operator networks.

In an event in San Francisco, dubbed ‘Internet for the Future’, the company launched new silicon, software and optics for service providers. At the core of all this was Silicon One, a programmable silicon architecture which Cisco developed with help from Google Cloud.

Cisco claims that Silicon One is 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 says this is designed 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.

Openness and disaggregation seem like words of doom for Cisco, but in recent years it has been working hard to adapt to these developments and make sure that, even in a multivendor, software-defined world, service providers still choose its offerings. The latest product to tempt operators to stay loyal, or to defect from Juniper or Nokia, is the Cisco 8000 router platform, which is built on Silicon One.

This is 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 CEO Chuck Robbins believes there will be more in 2020. “The technology that we brought forward today will enable 5G to realize the potential that has been talked about for the last six or seven years,” he said.

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

Robbins said Cisco had spent nearly $1bn over the past five years in developing the new technologies. One aspect of that investment was in integrated optics technology, with Robbins claiming service providers will increasingly need to own the optics as they scale up their platforms. This is an area where Nokia has shone in this market, but some analysts at the event said that Cisco was now biting at the Finnish firm’s heels. Nokia, of course, has also invested in a high end chip architecture of its own, to power very large-scale routers as well as its next generation base stations.

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. “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 (a $2.6bn deal announced this year and likely to close before the end of 2019). Cisco promised that its optics will work in its own, white box and third party vendors’ hosts.

All three elements of Cisco’s launch – 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.

“When David [Goeckeler, general manager of Cisco’s networking and security business] a few weeks back asked me if I am ready to support new silicon, performance, power etc, with programmability, I said yeah I’ll sign up,” said Noam Raffaeli, SVP of network engineering at Comcast, at the event. He added that Cisco was “doubling down on silicon investment, which is extremely important for us and for the ecosystem of service providers”.

The influence of the cloud giants, and the need to transfer that expertise to telecoms environments, was evident everywhere. As well as working with Google Cloud on Silicon One, Cisco also partnered with Facebook and Microsoft. In addition to running Cisco’s own operating system, the new routing platform will 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, has clearly been under intense pressure in recent quarters but was bullish that the new three-point platform – chips, software and silicon to support the new routers – would help turn the tide.

“There are three distinct decisions that need to be made with 5G,” he said, discussing the new strategy at a recent Barclay’s investor conference. 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, as the industry moves from integrated appliances to virtualized, cloud-native cores deployed on common cloud infrastructure.

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.”

Cisco also said it is working to help service providers reduce opex by reducing the time between the release of its products or services and actual deployments. Currently, it releases new hardware or software every 12-18 months, and it takes a year of testing before these can be implemented at scale. The vendor aims to use machine learning and automation to reduce that time to market and enable operators to harness innovations more quickly for commercial advantage.


There will be further analysis of Cisco’s announcements, and its 5G strategy, in an early 2020 issue of Wireless Watch.