Nexus brings Cisco into new territory

The chance to capture next-generation datacenters is likely to justify Cisco's efforts on the new Nexus unified switch that spans storage and computing

It's hard to overstate how important the Nexus datacenter switching platform, set to be unveiled Monday, is to Cisco Systems: for the dominant networking vendor's enterprise business, it's the biggest thing since the Catalyst 6000, which made its debut in 1999, according to the two key executives on the project.

At a dinner with press last week, they compared it to the CRS-1 (Carrier Routing System), a huge switch for the core of carrier networks that Cisco rolled out in 2004. To bring that platform to life, the company developed a new version of its flagship IOS (Internetworking Operating System) software and engineered the hardware to scale up to 92Tbps of throughput. The core of the Internet is Cisco's turf, and it wasn't willing to give any ground to upstarts.

The Nexus brings Cisco into not just a new territory for its business, but a new product category: a unified switch that spans storage and computing in datacenters and has security built in. Given the stakes, superlatives are natural.

-- A single Nexus chassis will be able to handle more than 15Tbps of traffic ripping through a datacenter, up from just 2Tbps for a current Catalyst 6500 switch.

-- At that rate, the switch could run 5 million concurrent transcontinental conferencing sessions using Cisco's TelePresence Collaboration system. It could also copy the entire searchable Internet in 7.5 minutes.

-- One interface module for the Nexus 7000 chassis will come with 32 10Gbps ports, and the platform is designed to support future interfaces including 100Gbps.

-- The company spent about $250 million on research and development for the new platform, and at its peak, the Nexus R&D team numbered more than 500 engineers, according to Tom Edsall, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Cisco's Data Center Business Unit.

As with the Catalyst 6000 Series and the CRS-1, Cisco developed the Nexus with an eye to long-term needs. Where the CRS marked the debut of IOS XR, the first modular version of IOS, the Nexus will have Cisco's first OS that can be fully virtualized, called NX-OS. The Nexus will also break new ground with its lossless switching fabric, a departure from traditional Ethernet -- though backward compatible with it, Cisco said.

The system also represents a gamble on FCoE (Fibre Channel over Ethernet), a still-emerging standard for sending traditional Fibre Channel storage network traffic over Ethernet. Though the new standard will probably succeed with the backing of Cisco and other big vendors, the installed base of Fibre Channel is huge, said Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala. There will be a proving period for Ethernet as a reliable, lossless datacenter transport, he said.

Cisco expects the uptake of the new platform to take time, just as it did with the CRS. The first Nexus product will go on sale in the second quarter of this year, and in the first year Cisco expects to see mostly trials of the new system, said Jayshree Ullal, senior vice president of Cisco's datacenter group. Deployments will probably start to pick up in the second, third, and fourth years after the introduction, she said.

But just as the opportunity was huge for the CRS, as video and other traffic rose fast on carrier networks, the chance to capture next-generation datacenters is likely to justify Cisco's efforts on the Nexus line. Web-based services and applications, as well as outsourced computing offerings from and other companies, are powering the growth of massive datacenters. Microsoft's MSN division is a test customer of the Nexus, said Ullal. Asked whether the mighty Google would buy in as well, Ullal said, "I would hope so."