Cisco set to revamp edge routers

Cisco Systems has significant enhancements on tap for its edge routers, to support multiple services -- such as Ethernet, frame relay, ATM and broadband aggregation -- across a wider variety of platforms.

The extensions to Cisco's 7200, 7600, 10000 and 12000 series also reinforce the routers' ability to serve as service definition, delivery and aggregation front ends to Cisco's new CRS-1 core router, which was introduced last May. The CRS-1 began shipping in August and has at least five customers, with about 14 more trialing the high-end product.

The refreshment of Cisco's edge routers, to be rolled out over the next nine months, comes at a time when Cisco faces perhaps the greatest challenge to its foundation technology of routing in its 20-year existence. The company lost significant market share in carrier core routing in the third quarter; it's attempting to navigate a profound product transition to the CRS-1 and its new operating system; and it's fighting off new or reinvigorated competition in the enterprise market and in Asian markets.

"While Cisco is in this transition, they remain vulnerable -- and could actually lose accounts," says Analyst Mark Seery of RHK. "There has never been a better time to attack Cisco, especially in the service provider market. However, if Cisco gets through this technology chasm, their position will be extremely strong."

Cisco was stingy on details of the upcoming enhancements, discussed during the company's annual analyst conference this week. But the 7200, which serves as a large branch-office or corporate aggregator for enterprises, will see IPSec VPN and other security extensions in a couple of software releases, says Mike Volpi, senior vice president in Cisco's routing technology group.

The 7600, Cisco's strategic metro Ethernet platform, will gain a smaller chassis for lower density requirements, as well as software upgrades that will improve its high-availability features. Cisco also plans to increase the router's performance and unveil line cards to enhance carrier edge capabilities.

The 10000 series will see a next-generation platform, Volpi says, with enhanced broadband aggregation features and increased capacity. Cisco will also roll out several software upgrades to provide a common release cycle to better align the router's leased line and broadband aggregation features.

There was some speculation that Cisco-funded start-up BCN Systems was developing the next-generation 7600 and 10000 series routers. All Volpi would say about BCN is that the company, which is likely to be acquired by Cisco, is developing routing software.

Sources say BCN is developing software for a session controller blade for Cisco routers to link carrier VoIP networks together. Volpi would not go into any detail on the BCN software.

The 12000 series, which had been Cisco's highest-end core router until the release of the CRS-1, will see higher-performance line cards for edge duty. Cisco first started positioning the 12000 series for the carrier edge almost two years ago with the introduction of the IP Services Engine cards.

Cisco will also roll out a series of software releases for the 12000 line for multiservice edge capabilities, such as ATM/frame relay interworking, enhanced MPLS edge functionality, and new I/O cards with higher interface density.

The 12000 is rumored to be the first non-CRS platform to inherit the IOS-XR operating system. Volpi would not confirm this but did say that XR "favors a distributed system" design, like the 12000 series.

That's not to say that IOS is going away anytime soon. Cisco is continuing to add a lot of enhancements to IOS, specifically for the service provider market: high availability, MPLS edge extensions, in-service software upgrades, and virtual private LAN services.

"We're adding a lot of stuff to it because, especially at the edge, it's going to be there for a while," Volpi says.

So will assertions that Cisco is more vulnerable than ever now as it steers through this router transition. But Volpi sees Cisco's current state as one of strength, not weakness.

"Clearly, in the core segment, we've given up market share -- more than we'd like to," he says. "So I'm not happy about having lost that share. At the same time, we feel like we have the right equipment now to go after and gain some of that share back. If we look forward, I actually think we're in a better spot now than we've been in a while."

Volpi believes Cisco can start winning back share in the second quarter of 2005 -- around the same time Cisco's switch fabric for connecting multiple CRS-1 router chassis into a multiterabit cluster ships. The fabric is now in trials at Deutsche Telekom AG.

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