Cisco jams features into faster WAN edge routers

New chips promise to allow added functionality without disrupting packet flow

Wide-area data networks, once the workhorses of e-mail and file transfers, now are expected to do a wide variety of things while being as steady as the old-fashioned phone system. On Tuesday, Cisco Systems expects to meet those new needs with a series of WAN edge routers that jump ahead of its current gear in speed and sophistication, and are based on a powerful new core processor.

The Aggregation Services Router 1000 (ASR1000) Series platforms are designed for enterprises and carriers to deploy at the edge of a WAN. Like Cisco's current routers, the products can do more than traditional routing, adding services such as guaranteed quality of service, multicast, firewall, policy-based routing and deep packet inspection. But the routers are designed so those services can be added without disrupting the flow of packets or slowing down performance, said Jonathan Davidson, director of product management for Cisco's Midrange Routing Business Unit.

All these added features can run as fast as traffic can make it through the router, thanks to the Cisco QuantumFlow Processor (QFP), an internally developed 40-core chipset. (Encryption is performed by another processor linked to the QFP.) The QFP can perform 160 simultaneous processes and runs all these advanced services itself, so there's no need for additional hardware modules, except to add network interfaces. All administrators need to do is buy additional software licenses. And the chipset is programmable, even to the point of receiving firmware upgrades in the field. Analysts expect it to be used in more Cisco products in the future.

Another key to the routers' smooth software upgrades is a new version of its Internetworking Operating System software, called IOS XE. It's the same as the IOS that runs on existing Cisco routers, such as the 7200 series, but it runs on a Linux kernel. As a result, when a new version of the software is installed, the previous version can keep running simultaneously in standby mode.

Financial analytics provider FactSet is looking at the ASR1000 line to replace the 7200 and 7300 Series routers it's now using in POPs (points of presence) around the world. More than 37,000 people around the world depend on FactSet's network for financial data, so having to reboot a router for a software or hardware upgrade is complicated and disruptive, said Jeff Young, FactSet's CTO.

"The nature of global markets is that the windows of time when you can do that are very limited," Young said. FactSet has been testing ASR1000s and likes the nondisruptive upgrade capability, as well as the idea of replacing many older routers with fewer new units that consume less rack space and electricity, he said.

Changing services without disrupting traffic has long been a hallmark of service-provider equipment but is relatively new to enterprise networks, according to IDC analyst Abner Germanow. Administrators used to avoid making changes to wide-area networks for fear of disruptions, but that's not an option anymore, Germanow said. New types of traffic, such as video, are showing up on WANs and consuming increasing amounts of bandwidth. New security needs also force software upgrades. Cisco rivals such as Juniper Networks have also been exploring this area, he added.

The sheer power of the ASR1000 routers marks a big step up from the company's current WAN edge routers. A single ASR1000 could give every employee in a company of 60,000 a personal broadcast channel and provide a secure, encrypted connection to every city in the world with a population over 150,000. A standard telecommunications rack of the routers could provide Internet service with quality of service and a firewall to every person in Frankfurt, Germany, Cisco said. That's largely thanks to the QFP, which consumed about US$100 million of the approximately $250 million Cisco invested in developing the new series. The platforms that customers currently use at the WAN edge, chiefly the 7200, 7600 and Catalyst 6500, are still suited to some customers' needs and will continue to be updated, Cisco's Davidson said.

By building many capabilities into one device, Cisco is taking a similar tack with the ASR1000 line as with its popular ISR (Integrated Services Router) for small and branch offices, said Synergy Research Group analyst Ray Mota. In both cases, this saves capital, operational and energy costs, compared with using a string of specialized devices, he said. ASR1000 routers configured for IPSec encryption, security, voice and video could save the equivalent of between four and 77 barrels of oil per year depending on the ASR1000 model and comparative solution, according to Mota's tests.

When the line ships in April, it will be available in three models: the ASR1002, ASR1004 and ASR1006, which will take up two, four and six rack unit shelves, respectively. Prices will start at $35,000.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies