Cisco ASR 9000 edge router upgrades introduce network virtualization

Cisco is upgrading and expanding its ASR 9000 Series with edge router and aggregation network solutions that introduce network virtualization to ease management and operations.

Cisco set the stage to announce the expansion of its ASR 9000 router line a week in advance by releasing its new Visual Networking Index (VNI) Forecast, which predicts fourfold IP traffic growth (reaching the zettabyte global IP threshold) by 2015. Cisco’s solution for all that traffic? New edge router and aggregation network solutions for network operators that have to handle it -- particularly solutions for video traffic, which Cisco expects to constitute 62% of Internet traffic by 2015.

We have to make sure we’re prepared to support the growth and make sure we have the right cost-reduction equipment as we grow our network.

Kevin McElearney, Comcast senior VP, network engineering

On hand to discuss their network challenges and lend credibility to the Cisco ASR 9000 upgrade was a cable-heavy panel of Cisco service provider customers that included Comcast and Cox, both of which are moving more to IP and have network buildouts on their drawing boards.

“We have to make sure we’re prepared to support the growth and make sure we have the right cost-reduction equipment as we grow our network,” said Kevin McElearney, senior vice president of network engineering for Comcast. “One of our main focuses is on business services, and the 9000 Series helps us position for advanced business services as we deliver deeper into 20 markets.”

In short, Cisco has announced upgrades to its ASR 9000 product line by increasing edge router capacity and overall network intelligence, and offering a unified view of distributed network elements across wireless and wireline networks. What's garnering the most attention, though, is the technology that extends virtualization to the network through its nV (network virtualization) technology, intended to make network management a simpler task.

“It was critical for Cisco to update the 9000. They’ve lost some market share and needed to show some innovation in that space since the series was introduced in 2008,” said Ray Mota, managing partner of ACG Research. “Cisco has lost market share at the edge, and people have wanted to see something innovative with the ASR.”

Jay Rolls, Cox senior vice president of technology, said the Cox network already has about 100 ASR 9000s installed. “We like to hear that a product line isn’t at end-of-life. We’re in negotiations to double our raw fiber and our national footprint over the coming year or two to meet all of this demand coming at us,” he said.

Cisco’s announcements may be a reflection of its new “back to basics” plan to focus more on its networking roots and win back Wall Street approval, a plan that has resulted in jettisoning the Flip camera and social media publishing software in recent weeks. Time will tell if Cisco can regain market share on the edge, where ACG says Cisco competitor Alcatel-Lucent grew its market share significantly in 2010. Beyond a return to networking basics are questions about whether hardware and software can even address operators’ service layer challenges.

“This announcement goes toward unifying their edge strategy, and you get management, virtualization and the ability to scale, so it’s a pretty significant launch for Cisco,” said Glen Hunt, principal analyst at Current Analysis. “Especially for cable companies that have deployed DOCSIS3, they’re now in a position where they can actually offer more telecom services, so it opens a door for them, and capacity is an issue.”

Cisco’s ASR 9000 edge router upgrade details

As with most technology announcements of this kind, it can be difficult to assess what really got announced. Here’s a summary:

  • Cisco is expanding the ASR 9000 Series to include the ASR 9000v, which will sit in the network aggregation layer for Ethernet aggregation. The 9000v is already available, and Cisco says operators can use its new nV technology to manage 1,920 boxes as if they were one single device. Surya Panditi, senior vice president of Cisco’s core technology group, compared the 9000v to a bank ATM that can be deployed quickly to enable expansion.
  • Cisco is also launching a new ASR 9922 edge router (available in the first half of 2012) for more capacity. When added to other ASR 9000 gear, Cisco claims it will produce a 96 terabits-per-second system.
  • Cisco’s nV technology can be added to existing ASR 9000 Series products, according to Pankaj Patel, Cisco's senior vice president of engineering, and it will enable network operators to manage operations from a single interface.
  • Cisco is also adding two new Ethernet line cards to the ASR 9000 line—one with two ports of 100 gigabits-per-second and one with 24 ports of 10 gigabits-per-second.
  • By enabling virtualization in the network and not just the data center, Patel said Cisco is helping operators figure out how to better manage a growing number of devices connected to the Internet. That's critical, as Cisco’s VNI Forecast predicts that by 2015, there will be twice as many devices connected to the global Internet as people living in the world. With Cisco's IPv6-enabled network virtualization technology, operators will have enough IP addresses to reach multiple devices.

Cisco may have won the most kudos for its nV technology, which is aimed at helping operators manage aggregation routers more easily. Cox’s 100 ASR 9000s are located in 18 cities, and right now they’re all managed locally, Rolls said.

“Operationally that’s not the best model, so as we look to bring more centralized management to those devices, to the degree that this brings one-touch management, it would be good to have one way to manage these devices, not 18 ways,” he added.

For operators ready to upgrade, the 9922 would be a logical replacement for Cisco’s 7600 Series edge routers. “It’s been a workhorse for many years, but it will never go to 100G or have terabit capacity,” said Hunt, of Current Analysis.

The problem of content monetization and ROI

No matter what high-capacity equipment is available, network operators still face the unsolved problem of monetizing all the content traversing their networks, since revenue per bit has dropped steadily for the past five years. Unless they figure out how to address that, newer edge routers won’t alleviate their pain point.

Cisco’s ASR 9000 upgrades may address growing capacity issues that providers face, but it can’t touch the traffic monetization issue. Without that solution, spending even more on gear to handle video efficiently makes the ROI look bad.

“Building a network for the traffic load isn’t the problem; monetizing that content load is,” said telecom consultant Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. Service providers that take part in CIMI Corp. surveys say they aren’t asking vendors for help in how to carry more traffic, Nolle said; instead, they're looking for help in figuring out how to monetize it.

“If your customer’s problem is how to create new services at a higher network level, this is an ecosystem problem, not an individual product problem. The day of the network box is gone, " Nolle said. "So Cisco may be going back to basics, but if they’re abandoning the notion of helping providers offer advanced services, they’re throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Cisco’s Patel points out, however, that the ASR 9000v and 9922 will provide a platform for monetizing operator services. Whether that’s the kind of help service providers are looking for remains to be seen.

Pointing to Alcatel-Lucent’s gains in the edge routing and switching market, Nolle notes that Alcatel-Lucent’s gear doesn’t have nearly the capacity that Cisco’s does, but Alcatel-Lucent spends a lot of time working on application delivery and service-layer issues that have high resonance with network operators.

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