Cisco's HFR Gets Mod

For its upcoming core router, a modular software overhaul is both a blessing and a curse, sources say

May 13, 2004

4 Min Read
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Cisco Systems Inc.'s (Nasdaq: CSCO) forthcoming Huge Fast Router (HFR) will mark a departure from the company's IOS software, and that change represents a major shift in Cisco's high-end product offerings, sources say.

As impressive as its hardware might be -- 640 Gbit/s per rack, with OC768 interfaces, according to sources -- the software makes HFR an even bigger deal. Those who've gotten an early look at HFR say it's a major development for Cisco.

"It's not just a bigger router. It's just a piece in the puzzle," says consultant and IP guru Peter Lothberg.

Industry watchers presume Cisco is announcing the HFR at an event scheduled for May 25, as noted by an analyst on yesterday's earnings call (see Cisco Delivers, Sees 5% Growth in Q4). CEO John Chambers ducked the analyst's question about the event, though.

HFR -- or whatever is happening May 25 -- is going to get the Cisco spotlight for the rest of the year. "[May 25] is going to be just the beginning of a series of rolling-thunder types of announcements from Cisco," said Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's senior vice president of product development, in a post-earnings-call interview with Light Reading.Sources confirm that HFR will use modular software, a key element that's been assumed for some time (see Source: Cisco's HFR Tips the Scales). It will still retain a command-line interface to resemble IOS, but the software architecture is meant to make up for shortcomings of IOS in carrier networks.

Modular software refers to the ability to run tasks on different processors, taking advantage of the mass of hardware that comes with a beast like HFR. This means programs can be upgraded or interrupted without disrupting others. "The concept is like blade servers -- you can run different software in different places," says Debra Mielke, principal analyst with Treillage Network Strategies Inc. "It allows you to have a very resilient machine that has a lot of flexibility."

One big advantage is that new software can be tested on its own processor, segregated from the live code. "With router code in general, you can't do that. So what you have with HFR is something really powerful," Mielke says.

Mielke adds that while other router companies have exploited multiple processors, none has taken the modular software concept as far as Cisco has. In fact, the advent of the HFR could open an avenue for other software vendors: "I believe, in the end, you'll see third-party software running on those processors," she says.

Bringing new software to market is difficult, and the HFR's scope doesn't make the task any easier. If the software doesn't work, the HFR's market impact could go from mercury to molasses."New operating systems frequently require a year of production operation before they are completely stable and therefore Cisco will likely incur an extended sales cycle throughout the first year after the release, except with the beta customers that tested it beforehand," writes analyst Erik Suppiger of Pacific Growth Equities Inc., in a note released yesterday.

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: FON) is presumed to be among those beta customers, and AT&T Corp. (NYSE: T) has been mentioned as well (see Cisco Sprints Ahead With HFR). But Cisco's arriving late to the party. Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7) already has a multichassis router on the market; and Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR) has been staking a claim at the high end with its T640, the basis of its next-generation offering. Suppiger notes the T640 has been shipped to 60 carriers during the last two years, nabbing a nice chunk of the high-end market.

The HFR may also have to contend with pesky startups entering this space, such as Chiaro Networks Inc. and Procket Networks Inc., both of which claim to be making headway.

"While Ciscos HFR appears to bring Cisco close to parity with Juniper in terms of ahigh-end offering, we believe that Cisco is late to the market and the company will need to convince carriers that Cisco’snext generation won’t be two years behind," Suppiger writes.

Software aside, the HFR might have some awkward moments with its hardware. Suppiger and other sources note the HFR's first model fits a rack 23 inches wide, not the conventional 19 inches. That means the box requires a literal forklift upgrade, which could turn away some potential customers. Multiple HFR versions are planned however; one source notes that a 19-inch-rack version is slated for release 10 months after HFR's initial launch.And, while it's not exactly "rolling thunder," at least one of the future HFRs will be a smaller-capacity box, a half-sized version aimed at spreading HFR to a larger market (see Sources: Cisco Building 'Son of HFR').

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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