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New Cisco ASIC has a programmable data plane

Shamus McGillicuddy

As part of its Unified Access news this week, Cisco Systems unveiled a new application-specific

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integrated circuit with a programmable data plane that the company claims will change how it rolls out new features and functions on its campus switches.

"The advantage of an ASIC [application-specific integrated circuit] is typically that the processing is done in silicon, so it's faster. But it's less flexible. If someone comes up with a new idea -- like they decide they don't want to do TRILL but LISP or a new networking standard -- then you have to build a new ASIC," said Rob Soderbery, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's networking products group. "We've built a programmable data plane that's able to cope with quite a bit of flexibility in protocol processing."

Cisco will be able to add new networking protocols to the chip, called the Unified Access Data Plane (UADP), as they are invented -- presumably via software upgrades.

The Cisco ASIC's programmability has greater implications for Cisco's product development teams than for the company's customers. The design "will be transparent to users and to IT," said Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure research at Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm IDC. Cisco, however, will be able to shorten the time it takes to add new capabilities to its products because it won't have to build new hardware to add new features.

"When designing new hardware, new boards take anything from 12 to 24 months of cycle time for that type of development," Mehra said. Cisco will now be able to add new features more efficiently.

Combined with Cisco's new modular IOS-XE IOS software -- which allows switching, routing, security and wireless control to run as partitioned services on top of a broader operating system-- UADP opens up new possibilities for Cisco to develop future products quickly and efficiently.

The ASIC's programmable data plane also gives Cisco flexibility to expose new application program interfaces (APIs) as part of its onePK API and software development kit suite, which include "both APIs for things we have invested in today, and for ideas we have in the future," Soderbery said.

The UADP will become the highest-volume Cisco ASIC, he added. "We'll do millions of these things and we'll use it throughout the campus portfolio," Soderbery said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, news director.


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