With its Network Convergence System, Cisco Systems Inc. has introduced a family of highly programmable routers that deliver some of the flexibility and programmability service providers are looking for in SDN and network functions virtualization.
"The infrastructure being programmable accelerates or amplifies the actual usefulness of NFV [network functions virtualization]," said Stephen Liu, director of service provider marketing at San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco. "If you take NFV in its pure concept, it's about moving off of dedicated hardware onto general-purpose compute [in data centers] to do functions in the network like security or certain policy actions. Along with being able to support those types of topologies, the programmable interface [of NCS] allows us to distribute those service stations and actually make those services portable, inline in the infrastructure to be brought online, on demand."
The Cisco Network Convergence System (NCS) platform comprises three new series of routers:
- Cisco NCS 6000: A 1.2 PBps modular router with 1 Tbps line cards, shipping today, and 5 Tbps per slot capacity for future line cards. The router converges both IP and optical networking.
- Cisco NCS 4000: A modular 6.4 Tbps modular router with 400 Gbps per slot. It supports optical transport, dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM), SONET and Ethernet.
- Cisco NCS 2000: A series of routers available in two models (2 and 6 line card capacities) that can connect DWDM transport networks at rates of 100 Gbps and beyond.
The NCS routers are powered by Cisco's new nPower X1 ASIC, which delivers 400 Gbps of capacity on a single chip. Unlike most network silicon, which balances processing and memory on one platform, the nPower X1 is 100% processing capacity, accessing the memory it needs by going off the chip. And combined with the open programmability of the overall system, it allows the NCS routers' network processing power to be repurposed on the fly, according to Len LuPriore, senior manager of strategic marketing for Cisco's service provider group.
The NCS routers integrate with Cisco's management and orchestration software, including the company's Prime and Quantum software suites, to create a highly programmable network that can provision new services and applications automatically.
"We're building a layered approach, made up of the engines [routers], coupled with orchestration and management that are working with the applications," LuPriore said. "In between each layer we have new code and capabilities that allow for cross communications between the applications, orchestration and hardware. The orchestration system is telling the hardware what to do and the hardware is responding back and saying, 'This is what I just did. Are my tolerances right? Do I have the right speed?' The application might say, 'No, I need more power.' This feedback loop occurs with constant monitoring of what's going on."
The degree of programmability supplied in this case is "stunning and opens up execution models for services that haven't really been possible before," said Paul Parker-Johnson, practice lead for cloud computing and virtual infrastructure technologies at Gilbert, Ariz.-based ACG Research. "One can easily envision localized instances of M2M [machine to machine] or so-called Internet of Things application modules deployed as desired in a given service context at any place in the supported network."
At a higher level, service providers will be able to create "policy domains," such as threat protection and authentication, which will allow them to create a programmable framework where services are running partially in the WAN and in cloud data centers, he said.
NCS "combines all of Cisco's next-generation technologies under a common umbrella to address emerging changes in the network and how it is managed to deliver on services as driven by the Internet of Everything [IoE]," said Glen Hunt, principal analyst for transport and routing infrastructure at Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc. NCS "goes beyond a simple platform launch to include a common operating system to span the network, data center and offers cloud support to deliver a more flexible services model."
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NCS has the ability to orchestrate the service chains of virtual network functions associated with NFV, Cisco's Liu said. But it can also instantiate those services inline on the routers themselves. Routing traffic to NFV-enabled data centers slows down performance.
"With NFV, [service providers] want to get dedicated functions off hardware and put them on cheap compute," Liu said. "That's all well and good from a CapEx point of view. What is overlooked a little bit is that now you have these service stations existing in data centers. To get to those, you have to trombone a lot of traffic from the users to these service stations, and then back onto the network and onward to their final destination. So there is a lot of inefficiency that might occur. The virtualization and programmability [of NCS] allows us to port those network functions and distribute them into the network elements so we can process them inline."
Cisco is extending the concept of NFV further with the ability to link its own server platform, the Unified Computing System (UCS), directly to the control plane of the NCS routing subsystem.
"Once we extend the virtual capabilities -- where we have virtual IOS-XR running on virtual machines -- we can move the virtual control plane to UCS, which allows us to capitalize on x86 compute, coupled with our customized silicon," Cisco's LuPriore said. "Then with NFV, we can move functions anywhere in the network by creating this fabric through UCS that allows us to aggregate core, edge, data center and optical components. We can really repurpose those at will across the cloud and leverage resources in an optimal way."
Cisco announced that service providers BSkyB, KDDI and Telstra have already deployed NCS.