Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Tuesday, January 28, 2020
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Cisco Aims Chips, Optical Links at Next-Gen Internet 

Cisco Systems unveiled its networking framework of the future this week aimed at scaling internet performance for emerging enterprise workloads like AI and machine learning along with network routers for Internet of Things and other 5G-driven applications and services.

The networking giant (NASDAQ: CSCO) announced a programmable silicon architecture as the foundation of a framework that includes the “un-bundling” of optical interconnects to switches and routers along with programable silicon for routers as well as network operating system software.

In parallel, Cisco announced progress with cloud partner Microsoft on open networking components designed to manage network devices under an open source effort called Software for Open Networking in the Cloud, or Sonic.

The keystone of the Cisco networking initiative is its “Silicon One” architecture aimed at expanding it network router portfolio via a programmable chip architecture. Along with boosting internet performance for machine learning and other workloads, the company said its chip template would help simplify how networks are built and operated.

The initiative reflects how vendors are addressing network bottlenecks as raw computing power and storage grow exponentially to handle data-driven applications.

Meanwhile, Cisco said Wednesday (Dec. 11) it is investing in silicon photonics technologies that would add capacity to the links between network switches and routers that are groaning under the weight of soaring enterprise bandwidth demand. The company said disaggregation of internet building blocks and the addition of photonic interconnects would help reduce cost, power consumption and space while boosting performance and reducing latency for real-time applications.

The router hardware and network operating system push seek to harness the wider 5G wireless pipeline for emerging machine learning, IoT and other edge applications and services. A new series of routers based on programmable silicon are touted as providing petabit-scale performance while allowing service providers to scale networks to handle data-generating edge applications.

“The current optics transport layers and routing layers will converge to a single routing architecture, interconnected by pluggable optics,” the company explained. The results will be simpler, secure networks that are cheaper to maintain as they are scaled.

Industry analysts were upbeat about the networking initiative.

This is one of Cisco's biggest announcements in the last five years,” said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights and Strategy.

“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,” Moorhead added. “Cisco will have to prove this one silicon architecture can scale up and down, but that's where the 8000 Series [router] comes into play.”

Cisco's programmable networking chip puts it in direct competition with networking vendors like Arista Networks (NYSE: ANET), Broadcom (NASDAQ: AVGO), Arista and Juniper Networks (NYSE: JNPR) also offering networking gear and ASICs, Moorhead said.

Cisco's collaboration with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) on cloud networking is built around a switch abstraction layer that provides a standard programming interface to ASICs while allowing hyperscale customers to differentiate their hardware platforms, Kevin Wollenweber, Cisco’s vice president for product management, noted in a blog post.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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