Cisco rolls out history at router launch

Cisco Systems on Tuesday gave the trappings of history to the unveiling of its biggest router yet, while carriers testing the product gave glimpses into the future of network applications and how they plan to keep up.

In opening the half-day event at the Computer History Museum in California, Cisco President and Chief Executive Officer John Chambers reminded reporters, analysts and other attendees that the IT industry has often underestimated future needs. The last time Cisco rolled out a top-of-the-line router, the 12000 Series in 1997, the company expected to sell about 1,000 of the boxes, Chambers told the audience. Cisco has now sold 25,000, he said.

This time around, the networking giant wants to believe it has a clearer idea what's coming down the pike and can better prepare carriers for it. The platform that Chambers and Senior Vice President and General Manager Mike Volpi ceremoniously unveiled Tuesday, called the Carrier Routing System (CRS-1), is designed with scalability and in-service upgradability to last at least 10 years, according to Cisco.

"Once we put it in place, we don't want to move it for one to two decades," Chambers said.

A single CRS-1 rack with 16 slots can process 1.2T bps (bits per second) of traffic, but the system as a whole can grow far beyond that, to 72 network-interface racks and eight special chassis to interconnect those boxes into one virtual system. Speed is a big selling point of the new system, including its 40G-bps WAN (wide area network) interfaces, which Cisco demonstrated with MCI Inc. by sending high-definition video over one such link while simulating thousands of simultaneous gaming, music downloading, video-on-demand, Web browsing and video phone call sessions.

Future bandwidth needs were on the minds of carriers testing the new platform who participated in the event. Sprint sees its steepest growth curves in wireless mobile services and in IP telephony services that it provides to cable companies, according to Kathy Walker, executive vice president of network services at the carrier.

MCI, for example, sees its corporate MPLS VPN (Multiprotocol Label Switching Virtual Private Network) service boosting its bandwidth use across many parts of the world, and peer-to-peer file sharing is quickly gobbling up more capacity at Japan's NTT Communications.

Wolfgang Schmitz, senior executive vice president and head of technology at Deutsche Telekom's T-Com wired network unit, said streaming multimedia services will drive the need for bigger routers.

However, reliability is an even bigger priority, one that Cisco's new system is designed to meet through a modular design that allows for adding new capacity and customer services without taking the router out of service, according to Volpi. To build a router that combines the stability of a traditional, long-lasting telecommunications switch with the performance of a data switch, Cisco had to bridge two worlds, Volpi said.

"Historically, our industry has taken a very PC-centric approach to building devices," Volpi said. "Every two or three years you'd design a new one, with the idea that you'd take the old one out of service and put the new one in." About four years ago, Cisco decided it had to bring in some lessons from the carrier equipment industry.

"Marrying the two was very challenging," Volpi said.

The CRS-1 also will eventually be able to do the work of several kinds of routers by running "virtual routers," a feature MCI Vice President of Network Architecture and Advanced Technology Jack Wimmer said could save the carrier money and make its network easier to manage. For example, in MCI's major network centers today, routers that face out toward customer connections have to be separate boxes from those that face in toward the carrier's other network centers. Having both functions take place in one highly resilient system could lead to greater reliability and easier management while saving MCI money, he said.

Sprint's Walker, who announced Tuesday that the carrier already has a CRS-1 on its live network in San Jose, California, sees the new platform as a way to bring back some simplicity to Sprint's network as it inevitably grows more complex with the addition of new services. Keeping a balance between complexity and simplicity is a constant struggle, Walker said.

As carriers look toward the future, forecasting isn't getting any easier, T-Com's Schmitz said. A few years ago his company unexpectedly was faced with the need to upgrade its network after bandwidth demand outstripped its predictions, he said.

"I've never seen a market like this, where the forecast is unreliable," Schmitz said. "We need to develop a better understanding of how the market is evolving."

There are many more variables now than there were before the Internet bubble and telecommunications crash, including consolidation among carriers, the strength of the economic recovery and the wide variety of new services, MCI's Wimmer said.

"It's difficult to get your head around (how the network will look) two to three years from now," Wimmer said.

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