Cisco 'forever changes internet' with... a router
322 Tbps of bandwidth (not quite) here
How will Cisco "forever change the internet"? With a new router.
Which raises the question: What the hell is wrong with technology companies?
When networking giant and server wannabe Cisco Systems sent word that today it would "make a significant announcement that will forever change the Internet and its impact on consumers, businesses and governments," it set the bar pretty high for an earth-shattering revelation. Cisco has plowed $1.6bn into carrier router development to bring the CRS family of products to market, but this is still a router announcement. That's nothing to be embarrassed about, but there's no reason to oversell it like a politician or a snake-oil salesman. (If there's a difference between the two.)
The new Carrier Routing System from Cisco, dubbed the CRS-3, will offer telecommunications and service providers who build the IP networks that voice and data traffic rides upon with a factor of three in bandwidth improvement, which might just mean that all of these handheld devices with broadband links won't absolutely crash networks. The top-end box has a whopping 322 Tbps of aggregate bandwidth, compared to the current CRS-1 router that Cisco announced six years ago that is rated at 92 Tbps.
This is a lot more bandwidth, and because telcos and service providers need to keep their customers happy as they try to use higher definition multimedia - often streamed through the Internet - they are going to have to shell out billions and billions of dollars to upgrade their networks and will use core routers such as the CRS-3 as the foundation of the next rev of their backbones.
By changing the world, what Cisco apparently meant is that network providers will now have enough bandwidth to allow for true video conferencing for the masses, not just for businesses that want to avoid travel and lodging expenses and use telepresence services (sometimes from Cisco) to hold virtual meetings.
"Video is the killer app," explained John Chambers, Cisco's chairman and chief executive officer. "It brings things to life."
With the CRS-1 carrier router launch six years ago, voice over IP was the killer app, and Chambers slammed critics who said at the time the company would only sell about a dozen of these high-end routers, since they had enough bandwidth in a single box to support over 1 billion phone calls simultaneously. Today, Cisco has 300 customers using the CRS-1 routers and over 5,000 systems are installed.
Chambers reiterated, as he always does, that Cisco feeds on market transitions and has a habit of calling technology changes correctly. Meaning that if you are thinking that the network providers are not ready for something as hefty as the CRS-3, which can handle over 1 billion video streams in a single box, you are wrong. People want to have video links instead of phone calls and service providers want to charge them for the service, so it is inevitable.
Of course, video phones have been inevitable for more than a century; Alexander Graham Bell predicted a little something called the electrical radiophone back in 1891 and added that at some point, such a device would evolve so users could see each other as they talked.
AT&T's Picturephone from the 1960s never took off, and only with the ubiquity and bandwidth available through the Internet is it even possible for video services to go mainstream. It would be great for everyone to have 1 Gbps links into their homes and over wireless networks to make video ubiquitous. Unless you like to do all kinds of other things when you are talking to people or listening to people on the telephone.
The new network math
Building the foundation of a new network with boxes like the CRS-3, which Cisco says has twelve times the bandwidth of its nearest competitor, is the beginning of that process. And once this capability is available, it changes a lot of the mechanics of how people interact. Cisco's internal telepresence network hosts 8,000 meetings a week, and presumably, it saves Cisco a lot of money.
(It is conceivable that telepresence just brings more people into meetings and away from useful work, just like the commercialization of the internet made some work much easier - gathering up information - while at the same time providing an endless variety of distractions that get in the way of work.)
You can take this too far. For example, the data sheets for the new CRS-3 core routers are in a video format. Which is perfectly idiotic. Thankfully, they are also available in text, where you can take in the data you need in seconds, not minutes. Or, if you are Google, you can just build your own 1 Gbps network, which Chambers didn't think was a very good idea.
"Google is a wonderful company," Chambers said referring to the request for information that Google put out in February to get cities and states to join in a 1 Gbps fiber-to-the-home trial that the search giant will pay for so it can goad the telcos and service providers into acting. "But our strategy is really how we bring this thing to life."
Chambers said that when it came to partnering with telcos and service providers, Cisco is cognizant of the word 'and', as in Cisco and AT&T partnering. "We love anybody who loads networks, we love Google, and we love Apple." But Cisco was never going to compete with its telco and service provider partners.
Of course, one wonders what Cisco was saying ten years ago about servers.
On a call with Chambers announcing the CRS-3, Keith Cambron, president and CEO of AT&T Labs, said that the AT&T network handles 19 petabytes of traffic each day, triple the volume of three years ago (and thanks in no small part due to that exclusive deal with Apple for iPhone connectivity). The AT&T backbone is seeing traffic grow by 40 to 60 per cent per year, but video traffic is growing at 80 per cent and mobile broadband (of which AT&T carries half of the traffic in the United States, according to Cambron) had increased at 5,000 per cent in the past three years. Clearly, AT&T needs some bigger boxes to handle the load.
In fact, AT&T is testing the new CRS-3 switches in Florida and Louisiana as part of an upgrade of its backbone from 40 Gbps to 100 Gbps. AT&T upgraded its network to 40 Gbps in 2008 using Cisco's CRS-1 carrier routers, and now, it's using multiple 40 Gbps drops to cope with heavy loads. Despite the network bandwidth constraints, AT&T still expects it to take a year or two to upgrade its backbone to 100 Gbps. Why this will take so long when Cisco will be shipping the CRS-3 in the third quarter is unclear. Ma Bell moves in mysterious ways.
The heart of the new CRS-3 core routers is a six-chip chipset called the QuantumFlow Array. This runs Cisco's IOS XR, which the company calls a "self-healing, distributed operating system". Aside from the extra bandwidth in the boxes, the CRS-3 has two new features that Cisco hopes network providers will be very excited about.
One is called Network Positioning System, which Chambers said was like a GPS for network traffic at Layers 3 through 7, which would help devices and data find the best paths to link to each other on the network. The other is called Cloud VPN. This will take Cisco's converged Nexus switches, Unified Computing System blade, and rack servers and combine them with the CRS-3 carrier routers into a giant, virtualized network of computing, and network resources (with EMC as the key storage partner, no doubt).
This will allow the core switch to automagically provision network connections between data centers and cloud computing facilities and get users to the applications they need - even if that means working with UCS servers to provision applications on new boxes in a different data center. Cloud VPN was also being pitched as a means of enabling pay-as-you-go utility computing for compute, storage, and networking, but Chambers did not elaborate on how this was done.
The CSR-3 core routers use the same chassis as the CRS-1 machines did and come in the same configurations: a four-slot single shelf (rated at 1.12 Tbps), an eight-slot single shelf (2.24 Tbps), a sixteen-slot single shelf (4.48 Tbps), and a multi-shelf system with a whopping 1,152 slots rated at 322 Tbps. Pricing for the entry CSR-3 system is expected to be $90,000.
One final question: What happened to the CRS-2 routers? ®