UPDATED 15:00 EDT / DECEMBER 11 2019


A ‘new internet’: Cisco debuts unified Silicon ONE chip series for tomorrow’s networks

Cisco Systems Inc. wants to do for the network what Intel Corp. did for servers and personal computers. 

At a livestreamed event today in San Francisco, Cisco Chief Executive Officer Chuck Robbins (pictured) unveiled Silicon ONE, a chip architecture five years in the making that’s designed to provide a common foundation for tomorrow’s networks. Silicon ONE processors can be used to build both switches and routers, modular as well as fixed, in a variety of different form factors.

We’re trying to create the backbone that will power the future of the internet,” Robbins said at the event. “We have to build an internet for what’s next.”

In particular, Robbins focused on the potential for next-generation, faster 5G networks just starting to roll out. “The technology we brought forward today will help 5G realize the potential,” he said, noting that 5G is key because the amount of data mobile devices are producing that need to traverse networks continues to skyrocket. “The announcement today is critical to enable the reality of what the hype for 5G has led us to believe will be possible.”

Harmonizing fragmented networks

Large networks, particularly those operated by carriers and major tech firms, are made up of a large variety of devices. Those devices, in turn, are often powered by various application-specific integrated circuits that each have their own unique architecture.

That fragmentation adds a lot of complexity to network operations. The situation is simpler on the compute side, since most data center servers are powered by Intel processors and they all use the x86 instruction set, which means a piece of code that can run on one machine can theoretically run just as well on other server models. By contrast, when a company has different network devices with different ASIC architectures, technology teams need to validate their code separately for each one.

That’s the problem Cisco is hoping to solve with Silicon ONE. In future networks made up of Silicon ONE-powered devices, the company claims deploying new services will require a lot less work and expense. Furthermore, administrators won’t have to deal with operational challenges stemming from technical differences between devices with different chips. 

“I see this potentially solving many customer problems through custom ASIC silicon as it’s one architecture for many networking use cases, which translates to a focused software platform, not three or four,” said Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights. “It will likely provide problems for Broadcom, Arista and Juniper, which operate in this space with networking gear and ASIC chips.”

First chip to hit 10Tbps 

The first chip in the Silicon One family is the Q100. It’s a programmable ASIC that Cisco hails as the first of its kind in the industry with the ability to provide more than 10 terabits of bandwidth per second. The Q100 can process packets three times as fast as other products in the category, the company claims, while using half as much power.

“This is the Holy Grail of silicon,” declared Eyal Dagan, senior vice president of silicon engineering at Cisco.

The Q100 will ship as part of a new router series for carriers dubbed the Cisco 8000. There are five models, two fixed and three modular, with bandwidth ranging from 10.8 Tbps to 260 Tbps.

Eyal Dagan (left), senior vice president of silicon engineering at Cisco, and David Goeckeler, executive vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Network and Security Business

Eyal Dagan (left), senior vice president of silicon engineering at Cisco, and David Goeckeler, executive vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Network and Security Business

“The Cisco 8000 Series [systems] are equipped with tamper-proof hardware that serves as the root of trust to prevent any modification of the hardware or software,” Jonathan Davidson, the head of Cisco’s service provider business, detailed in a blog post. The routers also ship with a revamped version of Cisco’s IOS XR network operating system that packs new cloud features. 

“XR7 has been completely modernized,” Davidson wrote. “XR7 can leverage new cloud-delivered SaaS deployment models from Cisco Crosswork Cloud to enhance operations. Now, operations teams can optionally consume insights and analytics as a service.”

Cisco 8000 routers began shipping out to early adopters in October. The series will become generally available in the first half of 2020.

Technical pressures

Dave Vellante, chief analyst at SiliconANGLE sister market research firm Wikibon, said Cisco’s bet on Silicon ONE is influenced by dynamics in the broader semiconductor industry. 

“Cisco essentially has to do this because it can’t rely on the traditional technology advancement curves like Moore’s Law,” Vellante said. “That just won’t cut it for the next 20 years.” Moore’s law, a rule of thumb that the density of transistors on chips doubles every two years, has become harder for the semiconductor industry to maintain cost-effectively, leading to a slowdown in the pace at which processor speeds increase. 

“Cisco has always been prone to use custom silicon which gives it more flexibility and control than merchant silicon — and it allows Cisco to differentiate from the Junipers of the world,” Vellante added. “It requires more investment and arguably limits speed to market, but for a player as large as Cisco it makes sense to be more vertically integrated.”

In the big picture, Vellante said, “this strikes me as the future of internet plumbing. There are many more innovations for the next-generation internet, including new protocols, open-source software and of course new applications and workloads — not the least of which are running in the cloud.”

Vellante provided this detailed analysis of Cisco’s market position:

The road ahead

Cisco is positioning Silicon ONE as the foundation for a “new internet,” one made up of carrier and hyperscale networks that support technologies such as 5G. On the long term, Cisco wants to bring its chips to smaller networks as well. 

“Ten terabits [accounts for] the vast majority of the need for bandwidth in the service provider market. So what does it mean to a tier 2 or tier 3 provider customer?” Cisco Engineering Fellow Rakesh Chopra said in an interview given for the company’s Shifted blog. “They can buy one system, built on one piece of silicon, and deploy it everywhere. So they may not be the first customers, but they may ultimately be the ones to get the most benefit in the long run.”

With reporting from Robert Hof

Photos: Cisco/livestream

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